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?

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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.

Alone Again… Unnaturally

A year ago around this time, I wrote the post ‘No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude’. It was in response to the news about some Roman Catholic bishops urging the faithful to restrain from texting as a penance during Lent.  And around the same time, I came across the article by William Deresiewicz ‘The End of Solitude’, pointing out the difficulty of remaining alone in our over-connected society.

Now a year after Deresiewicz published his essay, the number of tweets had grown by 1,400%.  Now there are 50 million tweets per day, an average of 600 tweets per second.  So, if you’re calling for ‘No texting’ at Lent, you might as well tell people not to use the phone, the computer, the iPhone, all the smart gadgets, in other words, get off the human race for the time being.

Hey, that may not be such a bad idea.  The current issue of The American Scholar has another article by Deresiewicz, yes, on solitude again.  I’m glad to read articles on ‘Solitude’, why?  There just aren’t too many written on this topic.  And thanks to Deresiewicz, seems like his is the only voice crying in the digital wilderness.  The article is a lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year, entitled ‘Solitude And Leadership’.

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.

This quote at the beginning of the article just about sums it all up.

Speaking to this class of freshman, all eager and gung-ho to fall in line with the rank and file of this prestigious Military Academy, Deresiewicz has the audacity (ok, guts) to tell his audience to shun conformity, break away from regimentation, to ask questions, to seek their own reality, to form their own opinion, and to exercise moral courage.  And his main crux: it is only through solitude can they do this.

Facebook and Twitter, and yes, even The New York Times, only expose you to other people’s thinking. Whenever you check your tweets, or get on to your social network, or read the newspaper for that matter, you are only hearing other people’s voices:

That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

He urged them to read books instead.  Well aren’t books other people’s opinion too?  True, sometimes you need to put them down too to visualize you own reality and formulate your own stance.  But, books, especially the time-tested ones, have weathered social scrutinies and oppositions, and yet still stand today offering us wisdom of perspectives in finding our own path.

Further, the major difference between a well-written book and a tweet, or a Comedy Central episode, or even a newspaper article, is basically, time.

The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Of course, this may sound reductionist.  But, I like the idea of slowing down in this rapidly shifting world. Deresiewics urged the freshmen of West Point to practice concentrating and focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking. He charged them to take the time to slowly read, think, and write, in solitude, an axiom that’s so rad that his audience probably had never heard before.

In this über connected world we’re in, it’s unnatural to be alone.  A solitary moment has to be strived for with extra effort, and much self-discipline.  That means unplugging the phone, turning off the computer and anything smart, yes, including friends, real or virtual.   For Lent or not for Lent, it could well be the only way to find out who we are and where we are heading.  Even if we’re not aspiring to lead, at least we know whom we should follow.  And, you’ll never know, others may be attracted to our slowness and surety that they just might step right behind us.  So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff.

No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude

Roman Catholic Bishops in Italy have added some contemporary relevance in the fasting tradition during Lent:  High Tech Fast.  The faithful are urged to free themselves from the bondage of technology and gadgets, and refrain from surfing, emailing, twittering, texting … in order to prepare themselves for Easter.  This could prove to be a penance much harder to practice than not eating meat, even just on Fridays, for texting could well be the newest form of addiction today.

At about the same time, I heard an interview on the CBC Radio program Spark.  Host Nora Young conducted an interview with William Deresiewicz, literary critic and essayist, who has recently written an article entitled ‘The End of Solitude’.

Deresiewicz taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.  When he asked his students what place solitude had in their lives, he got this reply: “Why would anyone want to be alone?”

With the ubiquitous use of high tech gadgets, and the torrents of Internet social networks around us, we are caught in a web of connectivity like never before:

Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely.  Now, it is impossible to be alone.

Not only that, the goal now seems to be to gain as much self-exposure as possible, to be visible.  It seems that the number of friends we have on Facebook, and the number of hits on our blog directly leads to our self-esteem and our quality of self.  The irony is, the pseudo and the virtual are substituting the genuine and the authentic.

What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”?  How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) ‘is making coffee and staring off into space’?

Deresiewicz notes that solitude used to be a desirable social value.  From religious sages to the Romantics like Wordsworth, solitude is the channel one hears the still, small voice of God, or heed the beckoning of Nature.  As modernism crept in,  the literati turned inward to find validation of self, like Woolf, Joyce, Proust.

Then came urbanization and suburbanization.  The generation that used to vegetate in front of the TV has given way to the child of the Internet, the networked self.  And we no longer believe in the solitary mind.

So what does it matter when we have lost the moments to be alone?  What have we lost?

First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct.

Also, the urge to be instantly connected has bred a new generation of skippers and skimmers, replacing readers.

… five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity

No wonder we’re told to keep our blog posts short if we want to attract readership.

With the loss of the capacity for solitude, we’ve lost the ability to cultivate depth of self  and create independent thinking.  Emerson said that “Solitude is to genius the stern friend.”  Deresiewicz goes on to say:

…no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.

The irony is, the more we are connected with the virtual world out there, the less we are connected with ourselves inwardly.  But this is what’s valued nowadays, isn’t it, to be open, sociable, gregarious.  But to maintain a sense of authentic self, we may have to sacrifice popularity, to be not so polite:

Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings.  He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself.

Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

Maybe this is one meaningful connection we should strive for: solitude, introspection, slow blogging, quality thinking, quality reading, quality writing, quality self.

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Click here to listen to the full interview.

Click here to read the article ‘The End of Solitude’ by William Deresiewicz.

Click here to read my review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

Click here to read my post on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she explored the privilege of Solitude.