Are you getting your five a day? No, not fruit & veg. Not even superfruits. Emails. That little red light lighting up on your crac … sorry, BlackBerry to help you feel needed, wanted, useful: after all, if you’re on call 24/7, you’re somebody, right? Having been totally absorbed for the last few days, using both thumbs to navigate my way through Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I’m wondering if the question isn’t actually how much of a somebody you might be becoming, and what your Blackberry says about you – and your relationship not so much with technology, but with the rest of humanity.

Sherry Turkle, for the uninitiated, is a clinical psychologist who works at MIT, one of the world’s hothouses of all things tech, and is the Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology, and Society (click for details). Although she has authored many well-respected books on science, IT and society – notably Life on the Screen (1997), which brought the concepts of avatars and on-screen persona to the mainstream – many have been of interest mostly to the specialist. Current sales of Alone Together are strangely comforting, as this is a book that deserves to be widely read.

While this blog has something of a burgeoning history in reviewing books that, at first glance, raise doubts about the seemingly endless optimism placed in all things tech (Jaron Lenier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion being two other examples), some contextualization might be helpful. As someone who has used email since 1982 and the web since 1992 – and whose use has been primarily in a professional rather than personal capacity, in fields including training, L&D and higher education – I may perhaps be more sensitized that most to the potential dangers of the faith placed in technology, and particularly where that faith is being placed by organisational or operational managers who often have no deep understanding of either the technology or its ramifications. (And apologies to those who perceive that as boastful: I feel more like Cassandra than Mark Zuckerberg.)

It feels almost strange not to have quoted her more often before (although our earlier post on the problem of PowerPoint – Short and shocking, but possibly blunt. Or how to miss the .ppt completely … – quotes her concern that ““A strong presentation is designed to close down debate, rather than open it up.”), although reading her latest book, I was reminded of one critic’s response to Morozov’s book – that the author’s problem was not the disappointment of previously undue faith in technology as his own lack of faith in humanity. Alone Together, with its description of project subjects who almost go out of their ways to accept seemingly inadequate technologies, blurs that divide, painting a picture where our tools are shaping us in ways we may not consciously choose and are often reluctant to admit.    

Writing in the context of mobile learning technology and learning transfer and application, my ASK colleague Robert Terry wrote in a 2009 Training Journal article (downloadable as a PDF):

In truth, I don’t know whether a BlackBerry is a curse or not but, if it’s a blessing, it’s wearing a wig and a false beard. Like many educators, I’ve watched heavyhearted as would-be learners enter my sessions peering into PDAs, fingers flying across keypads after a break spent not in mature reflection but in fire-fighting.”

As an educator, he – like many – is frustrated and exasperated in his attempts to hold people’s attention to the reason that they have gathered: furthermore, a reason that have chosen, accepted and possibly even shown enthusiasm for. Turkle sees something else at play here: the BlackBerry is simultaneously a way of being in touch (with somewhere else, and something that is not present) and out of touch (with the time and place the user is in). Consider one example that she cites:

Lon says he liked it better when his father had a desktop computer. It meant that he worked from a specific place. Now his father sits next to him on the couch watching a football game but is on his BlackBerry as well. Because they are physically close, his father’s turn to the BlackBerry seems particularly excluding.”

Nor is the only example. A flatmate won’t knock on a bedroom door to wake her friend, but will stand at it and text her. A mother insists on proper family meals but has to accept this means allowing BlackBerries at the table – her family cannot resist the ‘escape’ long enough to make it through more than one course together. Robin, a 26 year old copywriter, has her BlackBerry in her hand constantly and becomes anxious without it, even though her job does not truly require that degree of ‘being on call’. As longer conversation reveals, her anxiety is closer to loneliness and a response to impersonality: her social messages are now Facebook journals that are, in Rachel’s words “written to everyone and thus no one”. The efficiency of updating everyone by writing once has removed the personal contact of the lengthy one-to-one messages she used to receive: the technology has allowed the change, but has not prepared either the writer or reader for the impact of the shift of context.

As Robert wrote, referring to the work of Professor Richard Clark, there is a human temptation to “seek refuge in activity that requires little effort but provides the outward appearance of ‘work’.” This element of simulation fascinates Turkle too: life online is speedy – including the progress (and decline) of relationships, the dynamic of online games, the flare-ups of forums and bullet in board, the … well, twitter of Twitter. Real life, meanwhile, is slower, more demanding, more nuanced. Many of her subjects seem happy to accept the limitations of robotic companions or technology-mediated communication as an escape from the more complex, slowly evolving demands of life (“After dinner with his family, Hank is grateful to return to the cool shade of his online life.”).

 In a book with many disturbing passages, one struck me more than most, perhaps as it takes place at a funeral service.

Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, “I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.” The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible.”

So what is to be done. As the author writes, “We have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects.” For Turkle, one first step is to realise that we are not powerless and that the ‘costs’ are now sufficiently visible for us to take that moment and identify actions we can take. It is not technology we’re addicted to here, but the behaviours it allows us to indulge. Neither more technology nor disposing of the ones we have will provide an answer: we must recognise that it is us that are mature and the technology that is still evolving and growing – there are opportunities to shape its future. (By extension, ignoring it while we answer our texts will do it – and us – as much good as ignoring our offspring will to them and our relationship with them.)

The answer will not be simple, although it may involve some simple steps. Like Jaron Lanier – many of whose themes she echoes – Turkle ultimately has faith in our greatest resource: ourselves. Her response to a question about her views on Twitter in an interview with the Los Angeles Times provides a suitable conclusion:

There’s something I thought was a danger for the future, but I see it has arrived. I’ve been asked: “What’s wrong with getting you in little 140-character status updates? Doesn’t it sort of add up to the whole person? Why do I need to get the whole person? What’s the value of being with each other physically?

I think that we need to be more fully present to each other.

We’re human animals. I feel that, sitting next to you, looking at how your face moves, looking at your eyes, the inflection of your voice, how you look, how you dress. I feel that you have taken me in, and I have taken you in, in ways that really matter. That we’ve revealed each other to each other.”

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