Sherry Turkle has been very successful lately. She is still touring the country giving high-profile talks and her best-selling books are assigned in college classrooms all across the country. The quotes on her books’ dustjackets are from respected authors and thinkers. She is a senior faculty member at an elite east coast university. She is by all accounts someone with an ostensibly left-of-center perspective that is popular while still pushing audiences to consider the ramifications of their actions. Turkle, through her critical analysis of social media and portable digital devices, wants people to think twice about the unintended consequences of their actions; how individual choices often aggregate into undesirable interpersonal dynamics. This is important work worthy of public debate but, precisely because it is so important, it is worth asking who benefits from Turkle’s particular brand of mindfulness.
Critiques of Turkle are too few, but the ones that exist are spot on. Focusing on individuals’ technology use, according to Nathan Jurgenson, not only turns the subjects of Turkle’s analysis into broken subhumans, it also gives the reader the opportunity to feel superior simply by fretting over when and how a device comes out of their pocket. Her work also misses, according to Zeynep Tufeci and Alexandra Samuel all the ways social media is a way of reclaiming some form of sociality in a world dominated by televisions, the suburbs, long work hours, and life circumstances that geographically separate us. Taken together we might understand the shortcomings of Turkle’s work as primarily one of digital dualism, i.e. that she considers non-mediated, in-person interaction as inherently more real or authentic compared to anything done through digital networks. What has been left unsaid, and what I want to focus on here, is how Turkle contradicts herself and, in so doing, reveals a bias toward authority and socially conservative political institutions. Turkle selectively deploys her analysis in such a way that traditional sources of authority are left unchallenged.
Technology criticism tends to be progressive or at least questioning of unchecked technological innovation. In the tradition of Lewis Mumford or Jacques Ellul it is an analysis meant to reveal how inventions and artifacts hamper freedom rather than expand it. And so it makes sense that Turkle’s critique of technology in our everyday lives has been interpreted as a larger critique of the structures that put them there. Turkle’s last two books Alone Together (2011) and Reclaiming Conversation (2015) are easily read as counter-arguments to an entire industry’s modus operandi: Silicon Valley, in its unthinking quest for power and wealth have laid waste to thoughtful repose, meaningful conversation, and an inclusive social order. Turkle’s work is full of examples of people too busy for their children, children too busy for each other, and entire organizations’ social fabric quickly wearing out as they succumb to emails and texts.
It is curious then, that Turkle is very popular among the people that she ostensibly critiques. Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of WIRED Magazine provides glowing reviews on her books’ dust jackets. She gives talks at conferences like “Wisdom 2.0”, the World Economic Forum, The World Business Forum, the Association of Financial Professionals, Partners HealthCare, and SAP Global Marketing. SAP is particularly confusing given that they are one of those companies that give bosses more tools to bug you at work with instant messages and automated reports. Why are they so receptive to her work? What do they gain from Turkle’s work?
The answer to these questions is in the uneven application of her theories and where she locates the source of the problem. If the disruption caused by smartphones or social media is levied at social conditions that would be obviously undesirable to an educated professional audience, then technology has done a good thing. For example, in her latest book Turkle writes:
Gay or transgender adolescents in a small, culturally conservative rural town can find a larger community online; a circumstance that once would have been isolating no longer needs to be. If your own values or aspirations deviated from those of your family or local community, it is easy to discover a world of peers beyond them.
This observation, in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, is important now more than ever. It was both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch the LGBTQ community offer solidarity and comfort to one-another across long distances. It is puzzling then, that this “world of peers” was never mentioned in a recent interview with NPR’s Alina Selyukh. Neither Turkle nor Selyukh mention the LGBTQ community, their long history of enduring extreme violence, and the tools the community has cultivated to survive. The topics they did cover, however, included “radical islamists”, the ablest narrative that violence is attached to mental illness, and the completely discredited theory of radicalization peddled by war hawks. All of which is made even more confounding given that two days prior to Turkle’s interview the CIA had announced the shooter had no tangible connections to ISIS.
The reason d’etre for the NPR interview was, after all, that “the gunman searched and posted on Facebook, in part to find out if he was in the news.” We could give Turkle the benefit of the doubt and say that Selyukh had an angle in mind and it is hard to reframe an interview when the reporter has a specific agenda in mind. Turkle though, seems to have no qualms with this line of inquiry and instead offers up even more problematic framings. Further on in the interview she claims:
if [the shooter had] been part of a church group, a community group, and wasn’t so alienated in the way we live now where so many people are so isolated, alone … then there are more things we can do, to bring them more into a fold as a society.
Even if we bracket off the fact that she is arguing that “church” would have kept him from becoming a “radical islamist” we are left with the contradiction that networked relationships can be meaningful enough to convince someone to commit mass murder but not powerful enough to keep someone well-adjusted. Social media seems to be both too shallow for meaningful community and so evocative that it would draw us into unspeakable acts. Turkle assumes that in-person communities are the antidote to extremism, as if those that commit atrocities do not have cohesive world views that are forged in tight-knit communities like evangelical churches, fraternities, and the exact sort of “conservative rural towns” that even she acknowledges are antagonistic to human flourishing.
Still though, Turkle’s exceptions to her own theory (i.e. that in-person, geographically-defined communities are always worth preserving) are understandable: communities that are antagonistic to tolerance and plurality require intervention, but we should keep in mind that the same dynamic can also be weaponized to give individuals access to violent ideologies. In the interview Turkle hopes for a society that espouses “tremendous integration, and community, and hopefulness, where people feel a part and included.” This is a very beautiful sentiment that she and I share. Companies endorse Turkle’s work for the same reasons they do not like the North Carolina’s hateful HB 2 “bathroom bill.” If we are going to live in a cosmopolitan and interconnected society, then inclusion into a larger and meaningful societal project is essential to achieving harmony. Digital networks can help or hinder such a society and it is understandable to read Turkle’s work as nothing more or less than a meditation on this dynamic.
Exactly how we achieve such a society however, may be more important and according to Turkle, we get there through an unquestioning obedience to benevolent bosses, teachers and parental authority. Her work contains a thinly veiled but pervasive trust in status quo institutions: schools, the well-educated family home, and summer camp are unmitigated good things in Turkle’s world. These are places, that should remain intact so as to maintain a monopoly on our attention. Families, according to Turkle, “are a training ground for empathy” and “a place to let ideas grow without self-censorship.” I doubt that last sentence was true for everyone at the Pulse nightclub that night or in those rural, conservative communities. Already we are getting a clear picture of who she is speaking to and who can find her work useful.
Of course I am not arguing for the preservation of small-town bigotry or international terrorist organizations. What it is at issue here is how quickly Turkle’s analysis loses focus of underlying problems, and instead scapegoats new technologies. This contradiction in her work—that technologically-mediated sociality is both powerfully alluring and incapable of delivering emotionally fulfilling conversation—cannot be an oversight because too much basic research (indeed too much to even summarize here) points to a much more nuanced reality: that technology and sociality is mutually shaping and humans’ satisfaction with any given social encounter is never so cut and dry as to be determined by one or two factors.
It is clear from her interviews with business publications that this contradiction is an essential component, not a failing, her thesis that technology is disrupting important family and community institutions. She writes in generalities about inclusion without a substantial discussion of what structural changes need to take place to make people feel included in the first place. It is a kind of David Brooks-esque political consciousness that makes overtures at inclusion and acceptance so long as it does not threaten substantial power structures like white supremacy or the security state. Turkle consistently shows no interest in articulating how family, work, and school might be sites of violence or coercion, rather than (or even in addition to) social stability.
This refusal to engage with the sort of structural critique that is a prerequisite for progressive change is on full display when she discusses work and productivity. Turkle, rather than considering how and why we have arrived at our alienating social condition, would rather us turn inward and blame each-other’s social media habits. Rather than seek out the sources of widespread acrimony and distrust in institutions, Turkle would have us blame ourselves for not living our most authentic lives. It is a victim-blaming ideology that belongs with the “culture of poverty” myth and broken windows policing. Eroding work-life balances brought about by stagnating wages and longer work hours, for example, is turned into bad parenting in this sad quote from a fifteen-year-old boy in Reclaiming Conversation: “When I come home from school, my mom is usually on her computer doing work. … Sometimes she doesn’t look up from her screen when I am talking to her.” Turkle chides:
Of course, distracted parents are nothing new, but sharing parents with laptops and mobile phones is different than an open book or a television or a newspaper. Texting and email take people away to worlds of more intense and concentrated focus and engagement.
Yes, because emails and texts have the capacity to be work related, prime time TV generally does not. It seems like an uphill battle for someone low on the food chain at work to swear off email after 5PM if their boss expects constant availability. (Of course this should be a demand of organized labor but such organizing does not make it into her “way forward” section which instead is dedicated to reminding us that Kony 2012 didn’t accomplish anything and the news is scary.) Turkle’s observations are only useful to people with relatively high degrees of power over their own lives and means of subsistence.
Her elitism is so obvious that even business reporters have a hard time figuring out how to make use of her conclusions. In an interview with TechRepublic (tagline: “Empowering the people of business and technology!”) the interviewer pushes Turkle on her lack of engagement with power and privilege. Her response is one of corporate benevolence in service of efficient and happy workers: First she acknowledges that the privileged do have more control over how and when they work but it’s because “the privileged know that they get more work done when they live that way.” She follows that up by clarifying that such a lifestyle must be a gift from corporate overlords, not the result of collective bargaining or any other kind of bottom-up reform: “I do try to make it clear in my writings on business that it’s up to the leadership at the firm to create a culture of conversation in their business.”
Then there is the matter of those people who might not fit perfectly into Turkle’s happy worker utopia. Here she strays far away from anything approaching science and becomes positively cruel. In Reclaiming Conversation, she makes anti vaxxers sound like public health experts:
Parents wonder if cell phone use leads to Asperger’s syndrome. It is not necessary to settle this debate to state the obvious. If we don’t look at our children and engage them in conversation, it is not surprising if they grow up awkward and withdrawn.
Not only is it alarming to read a licensed clinical psychologist conflate attitude with a developmental condition thereby reducing the latter to the former, it is uncited nonsense that runs counter to actual research. While there is still disagreement about what causes Asperger’s, genetics is largely determinative of the condition. Even if there was no evidence of a genetic cause, we could simply note that Asperger’s predates cell phones. (Side note: Turkle makes clever use of a citation style common in popular press books that hides which sentences are backed up by citations in the back of the book and which ones are not.)
As any epidemiologist can tell you, widespread misunderstanding of the root of a problem will only exacerbate the issue. Not only because people are acting on bad information, but because people with the right information have to spend more time correcting the record and not enough time thinking about remedies. As sociologist Jenny Davis put it: “Those who disagree with Turkle’s claim that we are more connected to devices and less connected to each other find themselves in the position of technological apologist, enthusiast, or utopian—intellectual positions that they may well not hold.” This is exactly the position I find myself in here. I am deeply skeptical of the profit motives embedded in digital networks (among other problems) but the focus should be on the ways in which technology embodies anti-social structural oppression, not as the propagators of unthinking or broken individuals’ unintended consequences. Also, for what it’s worth, Davis, who actually cites autism research, notes that digital technologies may be more palliative than toxic. In fact, “researchers at Stanford have a lab team dedicated to improving empathy through digital tech.”
Running throughout Sherry Turkle’s work is a dedication to a fairly conservative worldview where the pace of work and the environment in which it takes place should be set exclusively by bosses acting as wellsprings of morality. Extreme violence due to a failure of culture, not real material violence or structural inequality that manifests in strange and tragic ways. Differently abled people are simply broken.
The ultimate irony here is that Sherry Turkle’s success is directly attributable to the only critique that she gets right: social media provides perverse incentives for attention-seeking. The outlets that welcome Turkle’s polemics are trading in the illusion of intelligence. They collect quotes from neuroscientists and quacks that call themselves things like “happiness experts”, package up half-thoughts into edgy-but-not-too-edgy counter-intuitive claims, and then overlay a narrative that assures their audience that they already knew how to live according to science but maybe they missed a few things. Turkle has expertly manipulated an already dishonest landscape of science journalism meant to provide fodder for condescending liberals. Some may have read Turkle’s latest interview and been surprised by her total lack of empathy but it should surprise no one: if her work is good for anything it is dividing the world into priests and pariahs.
I shopped a version of this essay to several media outlets with an ostensible left-leaning editorship that had a history of commenting on the role of technology in society. What I am about to say is neither an indictment of the particular editors I spoke to, nor their publications. To blame them would be doing what Turkle does: blaming individuals for structural problems. Multiple editors said they understood my point, even found it persuasive, but thought my argument was too afield from their usual audience or too harsh for such a well-respected author. The problem is that they are right: tech criticism is not seen by political magazines as the overtly political topic it should be and publications focused on technology rarely step into the murky waters of political or social criticism. There is no appropriate venue to correct the record.
Here I am not frustrated with the editors I spoke to or even Turkle. I am disappointed at the researchers who know better but remain silent. She is speaking from a partisan position that favors authority and those of us that hold other positions should be roundly and loudly criticizing this kind of analysis and building compelling counter-narratives and venues to broadcast them. Social scientists should do what scientists are supposed to do: experiment, observe, and confirm or deny existing theories. This has not happened with Sherry Turkle’s work as of late. I know that, privately, people talk about Turkle’s work as detached from rigorous research—more of an exercise in pandering to what we want to believe than a careful review of the state of the field. Publicly however, nearly no one seems willing to say anything. Too few scientists with a platform are willing to call her books what they are: polemics for conservatives.
David is on Twitter
Image credit: Steve McClanahan