Have We Grown Too Fond Of Technology? In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle examines our proclivity for robots, smart phones and social networks, and though far from suggesting we ditch technology, she wonders if we aren't losing out on human contact in the process.

Have We Grown Too Fond Of Technology?

Have We Grown Too Fond Of Technology?

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In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle examines our proclivity for robots, smart phones and social networks, and though far from suggesting we ditch technology, she wonders if we aren't losing out on human contact in the process.


How long can you live without your cell phone? And I don't mean literally, of course. I'm talking about not having your cell phone close by to tweet, to text, to upload a picture to Facebook.

How many times have you seen an entire room full of people wrapped up in a digital cocoon, comforted by these texts zinging in, by the endless notifications that keep piling and pulling them to the telephone?

But in this world, where we prefer texts and emails to phone calls, let alone in-person meetings, are we missing something? Or are our children born into this digital age and handed an iPad when they are six? What have they learned about interacting verbally with other humans in a conversation, which takes place live, up close and personal?

And what role do we want that technology to play in our lives? Because aren't we the ones using the technology? Or is it more like technology is using us?

Well, my next guest is a psychologist who has made a career out of studying how people interact with technology. Sherry Turkle is author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." She's professor of social studies of science at MIT in Cambridge. She joins us from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor SHERRY TURKLE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Lovely to be here.

FLATOW: And I just want to remind everybody, keeping in the theme of what we're just talking about, you can tweet us, text us. Tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And go to our Facebook at facebook/scifri. And our number is 1-800-989-8255.

We never used to have to say that stuff before, did we?

Prof. TURKLE: That's right. You just had to listen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do people listen anymore? Are they just watching text?

Prof. TURKLE: Well, in my research, people tell me over and over that they'd rather text than talk. People don't like to use the telephone. Telephone companies love to sell you voice plans because they know you won't use the voice part of the voice plan. So...

FLATOW: So you're going to get the free, like the razor blades of old, you're going to get the free voice plan, hopefully you'll use the digital side and the text side of it?

Prof. TURKLE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: It was really interesting. Your book is so interesting. There was one interesting part that I want to pick out now, and that was a girl you spoke to who said, speaking of speech, that she can't imagine carrying on a conversation on a telephone because it's so personal.

Prof. TURKLE: Yes. Well, it is. I mean, even a conversation on the radio, you know, you can hear you can hear - what this young woman meant was that too much - she went on to say that too much might show.

And essentially when you compose a text, when you compose an email, although teens don't like to use email, they're mostly talking about text and instant messages, you know, you can perform on a text. You can compose it the way you want, on your Facebook status update, you can get it exactly the way you want it. And a generation has gotten used to performing themselves.

FLATOW: Well, that's a great point, and we have to take a break, and I want to get right back to this idea of performance and celebrity that you talk about in the book, 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." You can tweet us @scifri. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other." And Sherry, when we left for the break, you were talking about performance.

It almost seems like we are living in an age of celebrity, right? Celebrities are everywhere, and they're most important, and in your book that seems to be what you have discovered too, that there are teenagers or young adults in there who think that if they're not performing online, they're nobody.

Prof. TURKLE: Yes, and more than that, they feel as though if they're not sharing online, they're nobody. They get into a mode of being that I describe as: I share, therefore I am.

They go from I have a feeling, I'd like to make a call, to I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. In other words, the constitution of a feeling becomes - in order to have the constitution of the feeling, you need to be texting someone about it.

And that becomes a problem because they become dependent on other people even for knowing what they're feeling, and it's a kind of use of other people that can get them into trouble. They don't develop a kind of necessary autonomy that's so important for an adolescent to develop.

FLATOW: Now, why is that different from, let's say, the need to share your life with other people before electronic devices, you know, over the fence or through the old telephone or something like that?

Prof. TURKLE: It's the fact that it happens as you're feeling the feeling, instantly carrying it with you all the time. I mean, these are - these kids are literally texting as they're walking, as they're talking, in the middle of talking to other people, interrupting the life as it's being lived in order to share with people who aren't even there sometimes.

So it's not that we've never seen before teenagers wanting to share their feelings. But there really is something qualitatively different here. There's a wonderful saying in psychology: If you don't teach your children how to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely.

And that's really the concern here, is whether we're all so busy communicating that we're not learning how to be alone with ourselves in a way that's constructive, in a way where we kind of know the boundaries of ourselves. That's the concern.

FLATOW: And you're saying that this technology is not going to be going away anywhere and that we'd better learn to understand those consequences and deal with them.

Prof. TURKLE: Absolutely. I mean, I'm absolutely not saying we should unplug. I'm absolutely not saying we should think of ourselves as addicted because if you're addicted, you know, there's only one thing to do: You have to get rid of the substance. We are not going to get rid of our cell phones, our smartphones.

It's kind of like food. You don't get rid of food. You need to develop a healthy relationship with it in order to live with it in the most constructive way possible.

My favorite line in my book, if an author is allowed to have a favorite line, is: Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up. And it's not. It's there for us to make, and it's there for us to make in the best way possible. It's time to make the corrections.

FLATOW: And how, if your kid is young enough to - you know, is a newborn or someone, let's say, five, six years old, who is in this, how do you as a parent deal with this?

Prof. TURKLE: Well, it's actually very simple. There was a wonderful article by David Pogue(ph) just in the Times yesterday, where he poses the question of his - I think it was his six-month-old who loves his iPad.

FLATOW: Six-year-old.

Prof. TURKLE: Was it a six-year-old who loves his iPad? I've been reading about toddlers, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURKLE: I've been reading articles about toddlers. So I think it was even younger. And he says something pretty interesting. He says he loves to have it at the dinner table and he gets bizarrely upset if you take it away.

And to me the two rules are: It shouldn't be at the dinner table because those are the times when I find kids complaining that their parents are texting at the dinner table and using their Blackberrys at the dinner table. I think the dinner table should be a kind of sacred space, when families need to come together, no matter how much technology they need to use at other times and places.

So you don't use it at dinner. You don't use it at the playground when your kid is trying to show off you his moves or her moves. That's not the time to be buried in your phone.

And then David Pogue also says that the child becomes bizarrely upset if you try to take it away. And any time your six-year-old becomes - you feel that he's bizarrely upset when it's being taken away, well, then you know, it's too much.

FLATOW: You point out an interesting place, where you were shocked to see it happening, is in breastfeeding.

Prof. TURKLE: Yes.

FLATOW: You know, women were texting while they were breastfeeding. What is so bad with that?

Prof. TURKLE: Well, because breastfeeding is a time when the bonding between mother and child is most intense and probably most consequential. More is happening in breastfeeding than milk delivery. That's a time when the child senses the mother's relaxation, senses the full attention of the mother.

And you know, when I interview children, for the years and years that I've studied kids, you know, for this book, the thing they complain about most is they feel the technology is the competition. The minute they met this technology, it was the competition.

And here you have the kind of primal scene for the child, a mother breastfeeding, and it doesn't have to be breastfeeding, it could be with a bottle, and breastfeeding with one hand and texting with another.

I have kids who talk about parents who read Harry Potter with one hand, and they're texting under the blankets with another, pushing the swing with one hand, texting with another. Our children are complaining that they don't have our full attention, and we're going to pay a price for that.

FLATOW: A backlash, down the road.

Prof. TURKLE: A backlash, yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255, Grant(ph) in San Antone. Hi, Grant.

GRANT (Caller): Hi, Ira, three quick little comments. If you prefer to text me than talk to me, I don't need to communicate with you at all. Number two, if these kids have a feeling of self-loathing and worthlessness unless they're texting, then they need to put some psychoanalysts, psychiatrists on staff in high schools because these kids have got a real problem, and nobody's addressing it.

And thirdly, if you've got a six-year-old who gets horrendously upset because you take his cell phone away, then mommy and daddy need to have the stupid slapped out of them.

FLATOW: Oh, pretty harsh. Well, harsh love, Grant, there. Sherry, what do you think?

Prof. TURKLE: Well, I'm a little bit - I mean, I must say that I'm more compassionate about the place that we've all come to because I think that it's taken us - you know, this new technology is here, it's very seductive.

None of us had ever seen it before, and it turns out we're very vulnerable to it. And I think we all became - you know, I talk about what technology affords and where we're vulnerable. I think it turned out that we were very vulnerable indeed.

And that's why I say it's time to make the corrections. I think we needed to take a little bit of time to see where we were vulnerable and how we're going to work our way out of this. So I guess I both agree, and I think - like, I guess I'm a therapist, and I think if you begin by thinking - if you begin by self-loathing, you're never going to, you know, work your way out of a problem.

FLATOW: But what about people who can learn things interacting online and become more sociable offline? Is there use for that? There's a recent study out of the University of Texas that suggested that.

Prof. TURKLE: Well, you know, it's interesting. I'm very interested in that study because it defined sociability in terms of the things that the network can let you do socially. And we have to be very careful about defining sociability in terms of what a social network lets you do socially and seeing that as sociability.

So for example - so sharing photographs. That's very sociable, but if you start to code people as sociable for how much they share photos, you may be missing elements of sociability that in fact are much more important and precious, like the ability to sit quietly and be empathic as somebody tells you their story and have the patience to really listen.

Or the sociability that comes from being able to apologize. Online, people don't really apologize. They say I'm sorry and don't really have to - you know, a full apology means, you know, being with someone and seeing how you've hurt them and being there to see that and to, you know, feel bad and experience that you've hurt somebody. That's part of a full apology. And that's sociable.

So I worry a little bit that we start to define sociability in terms of what a social network lets us do, but I must say that the reason I wrote "Alone Together" is I think of it as a book of repentance, because for many years, as you know, I mean, I wrote several books in which I looked at the many positive, wonderful things that the social network allows. And I wrote this book because I thought that I had missed something important and something negative that happens when you have the ability that mobility gives you, that mobile technology gives you, to essentially bail out of conversations with the people you're with at any time - to text at funerals, to text at dinner, to text at breakfast, to text at dinner...


Prof. TURKLE: ...that's the piece that I missed, and I think that's the piece that I'm trying to draw attention to.

FLATOW: Is it going to get worse?

Prof. TURKLE: No, I don't think so. I actually end "Alone Together" on note of guarded optimism, because I think that the people I'm talking to, both personally and also in business situations, are not happy. I think they feel that they're too busy communicating to think. They're too busy communicating to be creative. They're too busy communicating, really, to connect with the people that really most matter to them. The mother who's driving 80 miles an hour, and she has three kids in the back of the car...


Prof. TURKLE: ...and she's texting, she's not happy.

FLATOW: Well, that's a point that brings to what I want - the next point is: Do the kids feel like they are on a treadmill and they would like...

Prof. TURKLE: Yes.

FLATOW: ...some time off from it?

Prof. TURKLE: Yes. I tell many stories in "Alone Together" of kids who basically want a break. I interview one 16-year-old who, in the course of the interview, it took about an hour. And he's turned off his phone, and then he turns it back on. He has 100 messages. And he looks at me and he says, how long do I have to continue doing this? It was a poignant moment.

You know, they - they're on a treadmill. They feel the pressure. They take vacations from Facebook because they feel the pressure of keeping up their profiles, of worrying whether or not if they say they like this band or that band, you know, if - how it makes them look, and keeping everything consistent and making themselves look thin in their photographs. And, I mean...

FLATOW: And unless...

Prof. TURKLE: ...it's an art.

FLATOW: ...they keep up appearances, right? It's keeping up appearances.

Prof. TURKLE: Yes.

FLATOW: And the appearances in this case is how many times do I update my Facebook page?

Prof. TURKLE: Yes.

FLATOW: How many texts do I send out? Do I tweet everybody?

Prof. TURKLE: Right.

FLATOW: And if they don't...

Prof. TURKLE: And there's a sweet spot.

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

Prof. TURKLE: There's a sweet spot, because too much, you look anxious, and too little, you look like you don't care. I mean, it's a - in every high school, it's different. And then also, there's the problem that they say to me that it used to be that you - when you graduated high school, you could start fresh in college. There's no starting fresh now.


Prof. TURKLE: Your high school friends move right along you, you know?

FLATOW: Wow. Yeah. Talking with Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

And this is just, you know, kids - and there are kids who don't know it to be any different than that, do they? They think this is how the world works, because they've grown up with this technology.

Prof. TURKLE: Yes. I mean, but your question is whether they're going to seek something different, I think, is really the question on the table.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURKLE: I was saying that they - I call it the nostalgia of the young, that in some ways, this question of seeking the full attention that they never had growing up...

FLATOW: right.

Prof. TURKLE: ...I think is going to be interesting to watch as it plays out, because they missed something that I think they're going to be looking for. And I...

FLATOW: Is it going to show up in behavior?

Prof. TURKLE: I think so. And I think it's also going to show up in - I think they're going to be supported, because I think it's going to start to show up in business. I think also, we're too busy, you know, more and more studies are starting to show that what's happening in personal life is also happening in business. I mean, when people are getting 500 emails a day, they're too busy communicating to work, to think.

And another thing that's happening is that when you start to get that many emails, when people start to get at mad you if you're not immediately responding to them, you start to ask people questions that you know they can answer quickly, but you start to ask simpler questions. We start to give simpler answers. You kind of dumb down the questions. You dumb down the answers. We kind of all put each other on cable news. I mean, we say that our world is ever more complicated, but we're asking and answering simpler questions. So I think there's going to be a correction. I do think there's going to be a correction.

FLATOW: And how will that happen? Who will start that? Who will it come from?

Prof. TURKLE: I think it's going to begin in families.

FLATOW: You do.

Prof. TURKLE: I think it's going to begin in families. Yes, I do.

FLATOW: Discipline?

Prof. TURKLE: I think it's going to begin with dinner.


Prof. TURKLE: I think it's going to begin at dinnertime, with families putting away the phones at dinner. I think it's going to begin with families wanting to spend some time together after dinner, and not just go each to their room with their devices.

FLATOW: So - yeah.

Prof. TURKLE: I - yeah.

FLATOW: So this book is a catharsis for you?

Prof. TURKLE: This book was a labor of love. I wrote it as my daughter was growing up. And I tried to put in the book the conversations that I thought her generation would be having.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And...

Prof. TURKLE: I don't know about a catharsis.

FLATOW: Well, you said...

Prof. TURKLE: A labor of love.

FLATOW: You said it was because of all the other writings you had done years before.

Prof. TURKLE: I said it was a book of repentance.

FLATOW: Repentance.

Prof. TURKLE: A book of - in some way, I got something wrong. I tell my students, call me not-prescient.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURKLE: Call me not-prescient. I didn't see - when I talked about the Internet as a place where people would experiment with identity...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURKLE: ...I imagined that you would live your life in your real life - and here's the not-prescient part - and that then you would go to your computer and you would have, you know, some time where you experimented with identity, and then you would go and live your life, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURKLE: I didn't imagine that you would always be able to bail out of your ongoing life with the people in your life, really, at any moment, so that you would be putting the people in your world on pause to take a call in the way that we've now come to see as completely normal.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and take a, maybe a caller or two for Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other."

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. We've got some active tweeting going on @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also on our Facebook page: /scifri. So stay with us. We'll be right back. More with Sherry Turkle.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together."

And about, what, a couple of minutes left, Sherry. You started to give us some hints about taking a lot of stuff away at dinner. What about in other places, other times, other things?

Prof. TURKLE: Yeah. I think there are a series of sacred spaces for parents and children. I think that dinner is one. I think that - it turns out that when children - my suggestions are based on what children tell me are the kind of times that they feel most abandoned by their parents. Another one is when children come out of school at the end of the day.

So many talk about trying to get their parent's eye, catch their parent's eye. Here are parents who come to school and are waiting in a line of cars, and the child comes out and tries to catch their parent's eye, and the parent is looking down at their cell phone or their smart phone or their laptop, even. And the child gets in the car, and still, the parent is texting or doing email - and so really, not a school pick-up.

Another time is really not in the playground. If you can't be in the playground for three hours without doing your work, take your child to the playground for an hour and be there with your child. What's important is your child having the time when they don't feel competing -that they're competing with the technology. Not when you're reading to your child - again, reading while you're doing your email, not good.

And then finally - and this is a particular shout-out to dads - a lot of young men talk about how their dad used to watch Sunday sports with them. And during the commercials and in between plays, that was the time when they and their dads used to, I don't know, have little conversations that were the important ones. And now the dad is very often - has their phone out or their smartphone out and is doing email. And their sons miss them. They miss their dads.

FLATOW: So it's not the son who's got the text out or the Facebook. It's the father.

Prof. TURKLE: No, it's the father. One of the big surprises in my research - and it was so stunning - was that parents are modeling the behavior that they then criticize their children for. It's adults who've become smitten, and if anything, it's the next generation. It's the younger people who have suffered from this lack of attention and who I think we should watch very closely because I think they are more likely to help us make some of these corrections.

FLATOW: Sherry, thank you for - it's a terrific book.

Prof. TURKLE: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: It's a great read and great writing and great hints. And thank you for taking time to be with us today to talk about it.

Prof. TURKLE: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other."

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