Reason #15,926 I love the Internet: it allows us to bypass our insane leaders

— allisonkilkenny (@allisonkilkenny) April 22, 2012

Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle, Author of Alone Together and a New York Times opinion piece on our unhealthy relationship to technology.

Sherry Turkle published an op-ed in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times’ Sunday Review that decries our collective move from “conversation” to “connection.” Its the same argument she made in her latest book Alone Together, and has roots in her previous books Life on the Screen and Second Self. Her argument is straightforward and can be summarized in a few bullet points:

  • Our world has more “technology” in it than ever before and it is taking up more and more hours of our day.
  • We use this technology to structure/control/select the kinds of conversations we have with certain people.
  • These communication technologies compete with “the world around us” in a zero-sum game for our attention.
  • We are substituting “real conversations” with shallower, “dumbed-down” connections that give us a false sense of security. Similarly, we are capable of presenting ourselves in a very particular way that hides our faults and exaggerates our better qualities.

Turkle is probably the longest-standing, most outspoken proponent of what we at Cyborgology call digital dualism. The separation of physical and virtual selves and the privileging of one over the other is not only theoretically contradictory, but also empirically unsubstantiated. 

The relationships that we curate and maintain online through Faceboook and other social media services are deeply anchored in offline interaction. There is no “second self” on my Facebook profile- it’s the same one that is embodied in flesh and blood. I might make myself look better than I really am, I might even lie, but how is this categorically different than my choice of clothing, the bumperstickers on my car, or a cheesy Hallmark greeting card? You might consider Facebook, bumper stickers, clothing, and Hallmark to be shallow modes of expression, but then deal with all of these symmetrically. What is the underlying social ontology that produces these things? A symmetrical approach, one that looks for antisocial tendencies in digital as well as nondigital technologies, will bring you to radically different conclusions (which I will spell out later).

Additionally, we must not forget that these communication technologies are made by people with explicit kinds of communication in mind. Some may incentivize short-sighted, uncritical thought, but others might be built to support or enable in-person communication. I agree with Turkle when she says “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding” which is why users are constantly testing and playing with the designers’ original intent. We selectively delete posts, or create multiple accounts in a constant effort to make these sociotechnical systems do what we want them to do. Sometimes we go so far as to build totally new platforms. By ignoring this kind of behavior, Turkle is essentially accusing us of a false consciousness. We are not self aware of our communication technologies, Turkle contends, unless we make active choices not to use them. We are, essentially, sociotechnical dopes. The dope is on full display when she says: “We used to think, ‘I have a feeling; I want to make a call.’ Now our impulse is, ‘I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.'”

Imagine if we changed the unit of analysis from “communication technologies” to “antisocial technologies.” What might we find? We will have to look for technologies that produce effects and encourage certain processes. Our search might lead us to certain specific material devices, but not necessarily. Studies from around the world  (TrinidadGhana, United StatesJamaica, Armenia just to name a few) show a rich and heterogeneous relationship between humans and their communication devices. The effects are not all positive, but a lot of them are:  enabling closer family ties, allowing youth to find support networks, giving entrepreneurs in isolated regions access to valuable business connections. The internet is not a monolith and we cannot theorize it as such.

We must fight the urge to be techno-utopians as much as we should avoid Turkle’s digital dualism. I actually agree with Turkle on one thing- our augmented society is experiencing a dearth of evocative and meaningful relationships. (Here, when I say “our”, I am speaking in the western context.) Something that we might call “community” is in short supply. Maybe we do hide from ourselves too much, but that happens online as well as off. We are hiding from the people around us at the coffee shop, but we are also hiding from people online. I might block a friend who asks critical questions about my politics. If I am at a coffee shop without a device, I might choose to become intensely interested in my shoe or the ingredients of Vitamin Water. When we do run into people we don’t know, whether its in a suburban gated community (a technology about as old as the internet) or a friend’s timeline, we say and do a wide variety of things. Some are great, some are truly tragic and horrible.


Comic courtesy

Langdon Winner reminds us that technologies have politics built into them, sometimes those politics are intentional, sometimes they are deliberate. It is certainly useful to ask, “what sorts of politics are built into the Internet?” The internet’s Cold War origins mean its decentralized (to maintain functioning in the event of a concentrated nuclear attack) and it is constantly getting faster because computers were intended to give us the upper hand in making complex, “objective” decisions. This was a time driven by intense paranoia and individualist thinking. But ARPANET is not the social web we have today. There might be some of that cold war thinking deep in the backbone of the internet, but we cannot draw a straight line from game theory to your Blackberry addiction. There is something more fundamental here, something that predates digital technology.

Ultimately, I think we need to reconsider –dare I say it– what technology wants.  Both digital and nondigital technologies have the capacity to enable our most antisocial tendencies, or even cause those tendencies. Jacques Ellul thought that before machines and industrial factories, there was an underlying method called technique. Technique is, “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with the past.” Before someone could invent a technology that let us hide from our surroundings by clicking through “12 more of the most inadvertently sexual sports headlines” there was a desire to entertain our base desires with ruthless efficiency. Turkle herself says, “When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers.” This might very well be the case. But is it the technology that does it, or is technique, embodied in our email and smartphones, the underlying cause? Can we keep the technology and change the behavior?

This is where the distinction between digital dualism and augmented reality become essential. The digital dualist perspective says no: there is something in the technology that enables/causes antisocial behavior and we must overcome this false consciousness by actively refusing to use our devices. The augmented reality perspective demands that we look at root causes. That might lead us to the same ends: no texting at the dinner table, leave your smartphone at home at least once a week, but it also lets us consider other problems. Maybe your kids are on Facebook because you live in a suburb where you can’t meet another human without driving a car. It also forces us to think of the big picture- I will gladly live in a world where Cape Cod tourists are distracted by Facebook updates if it means disadvantaged groups have tools to reach out and organize across geographic boundaries. Let the rich be alone together, the rest of us will find something to talk about.

You can have deep, meaningful conversations with David on twitter: @da_banks