Abstract/Critque: Introduction: Alone Together of the book Alone Together

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Here is my mid-term Abstract/ Critique assignment for the course Social Communicative Aspects of ICT. I post it here for more people to see and reflect on the questions raised by the book.

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Introduction: Alone Together of the book

Alone Together:

Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Linying Wang

Teachers College, Columbia University

Abstract

The author begins by pointing out the negative effects technology has brought to us: we are connected, yet lonely, and fearful of intimacy. Then she explains her intention of writing this book, to “ask how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here” and how her attitude has changed from her last book. The author devotes a lot to her concern about the future relationship between humans and robots by citing many living examples. One of these is through her daughter’s critical reaction to two giant living tortoises on display in Darwin exhibition; the author found unsettlingly that most children didn’t see the value of aliveness. Other two elaborate examples are revolved around the notion of future human-robot love, sex and marriage. The author is “troubled by the idea” and was shocked when a Scientific American reporter accused her of “no better than bigots who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry”. The author continues to cite more examples of people who long for robot companions and she names such time to be “the robotic moment”, and analyzes the reasons behind it: Humans rely on robots to compensate for the disadvantages of human being. As the author puts it, “We are too exhausted to deal with each other in adversity; robots will have energy.”

Since the book consists of two parts: The Robotic Moment and Networked, the author then moves on to present her concerns on people’s over connection in virtual world and lack of real communication, and points out its consequence: even more isolated. Examples are common yet shocking: multitasking when having video calls with family, people doing their own stuff and not talking to those who are present during a conference. The author warns that we are degrading relationships to “mere connections”. Finally she summarizes the two parts of the book.

Critique

Trained as a psychologist, the author’s clinical writing style provides a great many living examples that illustrate the shocking fact that we are “expecting more from technology and less from each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.295) I cannot help but feel unsettled by these facts and keep reflecting on myself. Although I consider myself as a technology enthusiast and somewhat “geek”, I regard myself as having good control over technology, not playing with my phone all day or obsessed with virtual worlds. But I cannot deny the fact that when I have dinner with my family, I too sometimes watch TV on my iPad or send messages on IM; when I am on subway, I also sometimes concentrate on my phone like other people do. I don’t like the fact that almost everyone on the subway in Shanghai are playing games or texting on the phone, or even watching TV dramas when they are walking, but in the meantime, I cannot resist the temptation to plug in to the “wonderful” virtual world in order not to be “lonely” on the boring commute trip.

I agree with the author that we are trained by Internet to be “so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.294) Nowadays people scroll down their social media timeline page to check on their friends instead of making phone calls, let alone visiting. This makes us feel even more lonely despite the seemingly “constant connection”. Especially when we are at our weakest moments like illness and suffering, is it going to help if our friends just say comforting words via IM?

A cited 2010 analysis of data from the book also troubled me a lot, stating “since the year 2000… young people … say it is less valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings.” (Turkle, 2011, p.293) Such findings are shocking, yet corresponding to what I have experienced personally these days. But why is it happening?

One reason might be the evilness of human nature, as many great philosophers believe. Our fatigue with the difficulties of life with people creates the need for robots, as they don’t demand, disappoint, cheat or take drugs. (Turkle, 2011, p.10) On the other hand, such reliance on technology breeds a vicious circle: when humans have a problem, especially problems created by technology, we turn to technology for help. As the author puts it, “But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes.” (p.16)

A deeper reason, and much more dangerous and shocking one, which is not provided in this book, can be found in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It claims that “Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways…. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.” (Carr, 2011) No matter true or not, we cannot deny the fact that our attention span is shorter and shorter and our tolerance for boredom is more and more limited.

Disturbed, I keep thinking of the question what we shall do to change the situation. The book doesn’t provide many solutions, but simply suggests doing things like “talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner”. (Turkle, 2011, p.296) But are these actions powerful enough to save us from the “alone together” dilemma? I would call for more.

References

Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic books.

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