Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Part 2

Part 2 of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together presents the networked self. Turkle has been called ‘the anthropologist of cyberspace.’ Her book reads like an ethnography of our human society today. While in Part 1 (my previous post) she has shown how we are receptive to robotics to solve our problems, Part 2 paints a picture of how we have embraced digital technology to seek the connections that we crave. The social media phenom is no longer the exclusive description of the young. Turkle cites that “the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is adults from thirty-five to forty-four.”

I’ve found some more recent data (August, 2010) indicating that social networking use among Internet users age 50 and above has increased from 22% to 42% in one year. Now, more than ever, the popularity of social networking has permeated into all strata of our demographics.

This latter part of Turkle’s book addresses some of the consequences.

The Tethered Self

First off, we’re always on, no down time. Especially those with a smart phone, it keeps us connected no matter where we are.  Turkle has provided us with numerous examples like Robin, 26, a copywriter in a demanding advertising agency:

If I’m not in touch, I feel almost dizzy. As though something is wrong, something terrible is wrong.

Check where you put your cell phone when you go out. In your pocket? Purse? Where you put it may well indicate how tethered and dependent you are.

Robin holds her BlackBerry; at meals, she sets it on the table near her, touching it frequently.

So you think you can place it out of reach. An art critic with a book deadline took drastic measures:

I went away to a cabin. And I left my cell phone in the car. In the trunk. My idea was that maybe I would check it once a day. I kept walking out of the house to open the trunk and check the phone. I felt like an addict…

As to the form of communication, emails have already become obsolete among those 25 and younger. They use emails only for more ‘formal’ purposes, like job hunting. Texting is more instant and casual.

Needless to say, the telephone has become archaic among the young:

 ‘So many people hate the telephone,’ says Elaine, seventeen… ‘It’s all texting and messaging.’

A sixteen year-old says:

When you text, you have more time to think about what you’re writing… On the telephone, too much might show.

Turkle notes that such a phenomenon may be more wide-spread than we think. She writes:

Teenagers flee the telephone. Perhaps more surprisingly, so do adults. They claim exhaustion and lack of time; always on call, with their time highly leveraged through multitasking, they avoid voice communication outside of a small circle because it demands their full attention when they don’t want to give it.

Not only that, the real security of non-face-to-face and voiceless communication is the safety it offers. Behind the screen, one can hide… “On the telephone, too much might show.”

Of course, we must not deny the benefits of technology, especially for parents with children. A cell phone is probably the best assurance parents can have. For those with college-age children, we too can constantly keep in contact through all sorts of features on our mobile devices. But beyond the effect of tethering, what have social media and our über connected society done to our values? Turkle notes:

These days, cultural norms are rapidly shifting. We used to equate growing up with the ability to function independently. These days always-on connection leads us to reconsider the virtues of a more collaborative self. All questions about autonomy look different if, on a daily basis, we are together even when we are alone. (p. 169)

Indeed, collaboration has become the virtue of our time… whether it is a school project, or a creative endeavor, or a business plan. But for one who prize independent thinking and solitary quietude, I can’t help but ponder the downside of perfunctory collaboration. It could be a good thing if it is collective wisdom at work. Nevertheless, what if it is mass sentiment, or, as the popular notion today, a view ‘gone viral’.  Our ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ seem to be influenced more and more by what others are saying. Is there a place for independent thinking? Can we still preserve some privacy of mind, carve out a solitude just reserved for our own thoughts and feelings, insulated from the madding crowd? Or, is such a piece of solitude even desirable anymore?



Avatars and Identities

But it may not be all about business, or connecting with real life friends and associates that technology has made possible. Cyberspace has allowed us to adopt a different identity, building another life altogether. Avatars and online games have made it possible for one to take on multiple roles, all of them just as real. Using their mobile devices, people transport themselves to different realities simultaneously as they are living their real life in the here and now.

And it is this part of the book that is most disturbing to me.

In one of Turkle’s studies, she follows Pete, 46, bringing his children to the playground one Sunday. Turkle observes adults there divide their attention between children and their mobile devices, at which I’m no longer surprised.  But here’s the twist to Pete’s case. With one hand, Pete pushes his six year-old on the swing, and with his other hand he uses his cell phone to step into his other identity, an Avatar called ‘Rolo’ in Second Life, a virtual place that is “not a game because there’s no winning, only living”.

Pete lives as ‘Rolo’ in Second Life. He is married to ‘Jade’, another Avatar, after an “elaborate Second Life ceremony more than a year before, surrounded by their virtual best friends.” Pete has an intimate relationship with Jade, whom he describes as “intelligent, passionate, and easy to talk to”, even though he knows very well that ‘Jade’ could be anyone, of any age and gender. Here’s what Pete says about his other married life:

Second Life gives me a better relationship than I have in real life. This is where I feel most myself. Jade accepts who I am. My relationship with Jade makes it possible for me to stay in my marriage, with my family.

Borders sure have blurred in our digital age. Is this considered a kind of extramarital affair? To Pete, this virtual marriage is an essential part of his life-mix, another of our postmodern notions. Life-mix is “the mash-up of what you have on- and off-line.”

So, it’s no longer “multi-tasking” any more, but “multi-lifing”. With all the avatars we can claim online, we can have multiple identities. I can’t help but ask: But which one is real? I also wonder how many are projecting their real-life identity and true self on Facebook, blogs or Twitter? But the ultimate questions probably would be: What is ‘real life’ anyway, or the ‘true self’? Does ‘authenticity’ still matter? Is it even definable?

Part 1 of Alone Together shows people’s positive reception of robots, those simulated human machines. Part 2 is in a similar vein, depicting a society that embraces simulated lives through avatars, and simulated relationships through virtual connections. We may be more connected ever, but we are isolated. Alone, but we are alone together.

In her concluding chapter, Turkle writes:

We brag about how many we have ‘friended’ on Facebook, yet Americans say they have fewer friends than before. When asked in whom they can confide and to whom they turn in an emergency, more and more say that their only resource is their family.

The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.

And I must mention this case. Turkle has a former colleague, Richard, who has been left severely disabled by an automobile accident. Confined to a wheelchair in his home. He has had his share of abusive carers…

Some… hurt you because they are unskilled, and some hurt you because they mean to. I had both. One of them, she pulled me by the hair. One dragged me by my tubes. A robot would never do that,” he says. And then he adds: “But you know, in the end, that person who dragged me by my tubes had a story. I could find out about it. She had a story.”

For Richard, being with a person, even an unpleasant, sadistic person, makes him feel that he is still alive… For him, dignity requires a feeling of authenticity, a sense of being connected to the human narrative. It helps sustain him. Although he would not want his life endangered, he prefers the sadist to the robot.

Richard might have pointed to what it means to be human. I wish I could quote more, but my post is too long.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. Basic Books, New York, 2011, 360 pages.

~~~ 1/2 Ripples

CLICK HERE to hear Sherry Turkle talk on reclaiming conversations.

CLICK HERE to an interview with Sherry Turkle

CLICK HERE to read my post “Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Part 1

CLICK HERE to read my post “No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude”

Both photos on this post are taken by Arti of Ripple Effects. Top: One of the Thousand Islands, Kingston, Ontario, Sept. 2007. Bottom: Authenticity & the Networked Self, March, 2011.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

17 thoughts on “Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Part 2”

  1. This is fascinating and alarming in equal measure. I find myself reacting strongly against the performative aspects of virtual life, where it is so possible to be someone just to the left or right of your habitual persona. Humans have always been multi-faceted, and always behaved differently when they are at work/in the pub/in a classroom/with their loved ones, etc. What seems odd is to encourage the diversity of that, rather than move towards integration (which would seem healthier). I find more and more I only want to write on my own blog when I have something authentic to say, something I can say with my heart and my head. A while ago there was a lot of chat on the blogworld about the way that having a persona helped us all to be more honest and straightforward – perhaps that was just a small group of us, or maybe things are changing again?


    1. Litlove,

      It’s all a matter of personal preference I suppose. For example, I choose to go to blogs where I can find evidence of personal integrity and truthfulness in them, and only leave comments on those whom I could feel secure. Of course, people can deceive me by creating a totally different persona behind an avatar, or even behind a real ID, as many involved in social media are doing. It’s a kind of self-selection, isn’t it? Like the saying “birds of a feather”, there are numerous styles to connect on our massive, fast evolving social networking scene, depending on our purpose, likes and dislikes.

      You might be interested to read this by now famous Wired article (1996): “Sex, Lies, and Avatars”, when ST’s book Life On The Screen came out. In there, ST’s tone was one of optimism, calling for us to celebrate those ‘liminal moments’ the Internet could offer us. With her new book Alone Together, such ‘liminal spaces’ seem to have developed into compartmentalized selves and the blurring of virtual and physical realities… ominous indeed.


  2. I could so totally live in that cute little house on the lake. This sounds like a really interesting book. I know people are attached to their smartphones, but I wonder how common someone like Pete/Rollo really is? And what about Pete’s real wife? What does she think about him being married to someone else in Second Life? Am I being naive, or are most of the people who have more satisfying virtual lives than real lives somehow mentally and emotionally lacking?


    The Thousand Islands are so unique. Some islands are not much larger than the house situated on them, and each island is privately owned. You can definitely check out this little one if you like it. 😉

    As for Pete, the book doesn’t say but I have the feeling that his wife doesn’t know about his Second Life marriage…it would defeat the purpose if she did. It mentions that Rolo shares intimate info. with Jade, including his medications and health issues, rather than with his RL wife Alison because she couldn’t handle the anxiety. The author ST had once received a business card with the person’s real name, Avatar, as well as FB identity on it. There you go… each ID is as real as the other ones.



  3. I find this incredibly fascinating — partly because I see parts of me in it and partly because it is so alien to the life I lead.

    Example — I only take my cell phone with me when I’m in a bad neighborhood or on the road. And it’s a stupid phone — it just calls. I can’t figure out how to set my voice mail and if I did the message would probably be “If you want me to answer you, send me an email.”

    I can’t/don’t want to text — they can’t spell. It bothers me. I only tweet for work, and even that I do badly. I have a boatload of FB friends, true. But I freely admit some are people who friended me I don’t know all that well and a large number are professional colleagues across the country. I don’t live on FB, don’t tweet (though I ADORE blogs and blogging). And I have tons of friends I see regularly — my GGs (Great Group of Women), the Cork Poppers (my wino friends), the book club, the art friends, the theatre friends, the weekly dinner friends… I like them face-to-face! And we make that time happen. The phone? Yeah, I’d rather give that a pass…

    So, I’m beginning to wonder what little utopian rock I live under. I don’t know — but I like it. (That said — I see a lot of what Turkle says in the world around me. For good or ill.)

    On another note, thank you for your wonderful comments on my blog on the creative projects! I’m delighted to know you do mixed media too (even if for now the stuff is in a box!) Someday maybe you’ll dig it out and play again!


    1. jeanie,

      You’re the proof that there are still those who value face-to-face interactions and pursue real life human relationships. Maybe Sherry Turkle should study those of us who stand resistant to technological tyranny. That’s right, we should be recruited for that kind of sociological study. We’re not Luddites, for we use the cell phone to keep in touch with our loved ones, we use emails to contact friends and associates, we might even tweet and with whatever time we have left, maintain a FB page. But above all, we blog in the most sincerest of mind and heart… and we still do arts and crafts and write in journals, even self-made ones. How about that! We stay on top of and not be drowned by tech. currents, striving to remain as we are, humans. Thank you for sharing.



  4. Oh my goodness, Arti. Your excerpts are alarming. I’m listening to Michael Crichton’s book Next and, though I don’t care for his style and the disjointed feel of the book, it does raise questions about whether we should do what we are able to do. Anyway, Turkle’s book sounds fascinating. Thank you for your review and always thoughtful commentary.


    Reading research studies mentioned in this book just inform us as to where some people have gone with tech. I know online and role-playing games are huge for a long while.



  5. Multi-lifing? Oh, dear, that doesn’t sound good. I’m a little inclined to be contrary with Turkle, as when I’ve heard interviews with her, she seemed to simplify things a little too much and be a little more extreme than I was comfortable with. But still, her warnings are good ones. I’m a little too reliant on my smart phone, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m not as bad as Robin, but I worry about becoming that way.


    It may not be as pervasive as Turkle has noted, nevertheless, we shouldn’t embrace technology blindly without studying its effects on our human society. So this book is a good reminder.



  6. When I was making coffee this morning, I heard a report on the news that a bill’s been introduced into the Texas legislature to ban texting while legislating. Why? you might ask. Because the lobbyists barrage legislators in committee, during votes, etc, with texts which attempt to influence their vote. Who says we don’t adapt to technology?

    There are so many issues here – a good indication that Turkle’s on to something, at least in her points about how pervasive the technology’s become.

    One thing I have noticed over the past year is an increase in the number of blog entries focused on the role of facebook, tweeting, texting and so on in our lives. The entries range from vague complaints to actual whining about how “intrusive” the technologies have become, or how much time is consumed by, for example, updating facebook status or checking tweets.

    I wish I could ask some of these folks, “Just WHO is in charge of your life?”
    No one forces any of these technologies on us – except, of course, when we might be required to use them for work or elsewhere. They are tools, and like any tool can be used for good or ill. I like the metaphor of the hammer, which can be used to pound a nail or split a skull. The hammer’s neutral. The hand and heart that wield it make the difference.

    As for avatars, second life and such – there’s a lot of creepiness out there. It tends to pop up in the chat rooms and forums more than in blogs, but it can be very, very strange. I happen to know someone who engages in what’s called “sock puppetry” – he goes by two names, and engages in conversations with himself in forums. One “troll” has popped up on the weather underground blog page under at least a dozen names, and probably more. What’s most amusing is that the “voice” doesn’t change, even when the name and avatar do, and everyone just heaves a sigh and says, “She’s back.”

    If you’d like some real amusement, check out the Flame Warriors page. Every sort of quirky, quarrelsome, sociopathic loser who trolls the boards and chatrooms is there, in his or her full glory. 😉

    It just seems so simple to me. There are toys and there are tools, and it’s perfectly fine for us to have both – we just need to remember which is which.


    1. Linda,

      Well you mentioned it in your post, the notion of praxis. With regards to all the fast-paced tech. advancement in our society, we sure need some kind of technology ‘watchdogs’ to check where we are heading. The issue that requires more examination is what direction we want to go and how. I always think that: “That we can doesn’t mean that we should.” Of course, what should and shouldn’t depend on our values and beliefs. Dialogues are much needed as we find our ways towards the future. As you mention, technology is a tool, and not our captor. We definitely should not give up our autonomy and let it run our society. The difficult part of course is, when tech. can solve our problems and gives us pleasure, it’s all the more easier to surrender to such allurement.


  7. Arti,

    It’s taken me a while to find it, but you might be interested in this essay by Paul Graham, whose “Disconnecting from Distraction” is so good. This one’s called The Acceleration of Addictiveness. I’ve found it a useful read.


    Thanks for the link. You might like this one… hear ST talk on reclaiming conversations:



  8. Hi, Arti – thanks for your lovely tweet.
    This is more than interesting, this info on social networking. And people over 50, up to 44 percent in terms of social media – egads.
    Best of all, the summary phrase: it’s not multi-tasking, it’s multi-lifing.
    Indeed, indeed.


    Yes, lots to think about. We’ll have to make time for just that. 😉



  9. I’ve never liked talking on the phone, particularly making the call, except to close friends and family, and this post so perfectly explains why — you show too much. Additionally, I also never wanted to take the time, the full involvement a phone call needs, nor did I want to intrude on someone else’s time, considering that they may not want to be bothered, either. But I am a huge emailer, because an email can be retrieved — or not — at any time and answered at the recipient’s leisure. My 20-something children never answer emails, but they will answer a text, so now I text.

    I don’t feel tied down by my cell phone. I love it, probably because in the past I had a couple of lemon cars and was often stranded. So it’s been a lifeline, rather than a tether. Sometimes when standing in a long checkout line, I check my email or read the news on my phone.

    The introduction of Caller ID changed our perception of the phone. In the past before Caller ID, we’d feel we had to answer the phone (Yes, I’m old enough to remember those days…) whenever it rang because it might be important. But when we were able to see who was calling, we could decide on the caller’s importance and only answered it at our convenience. We need to set ground rules for technology’s use. Are we in control, or is it?


    1. Cathy,

      You’re right about using time well while waiting in line. Our cell phone is much more than just a phone, for many, and I must say myself included, it’s like a portable office… the Internet, emails, texting, reading, news feeds, music, games, video clips, and just about any kind of apps. I’m afraid that’s precisely the point ST is saying. We’re always on. Further, that is one convenient way to open a portal into other possible lives in real time.


  10. This book picks up a lot of issues I’m trying to face in my day-to-day life, and also somewhat in my fiction. Thanks for discussing it here, and for telling me about it in your comment on my blog!

    As with the advent of each new technology, there have been reservations to adopting newer kinds of communication, social networking sites, and even sites like Second Life. The perils are real, but they are as real as we make them.

    When I go on networking sites, I try to be as aware of privacy as possible (mine as well as others’), I try to use them to promote my work (not overly so), I spend only as much time on them as I can afford to.

    If one is aware and in control, sites like Facebook can deliver treasures in terms of getting back in touch with people you really wanted to, Second life can be a place to exchange ideas and expressions, and the humble cellphone and the services it offers an asset.

    This awareness is natural to some, not so much to others, who might overdo it. As the technologies become part of our lives, our survival instincts would ensure that we make ground rules for every new aspect that they add to our lives.

    If one becomes addicted to technology, it can be cured in the same way any other addiction is. The key to adopting technology, as with anything else in life, is moderation.


    1. Damyanti,

      With moderation… and much discipline and will power I think. Tech. has provided so much convenience and pleasures for us that it would be very hard to revert back or go without. As for our social networking sites, your discreet usage can definitely safeguard yourself. I particularly like this quote from Ayn Rand: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy.” Seems like social networking today is doing just the reverse, exposing as much about ourselves as we’d like. As William Deresiewicz states, the goal now seems to be to gain as much self-exposure and be visible to as many as possible. The rule of the game: the one with the most ‘friends’ wins.


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