Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review – “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”

Sherry Turkle is the Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and a licensed clinical psychologist. Her latest book, which is a bit dated now, is entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). 

This fine work is the third in a trilogy, and it explores how the technology we have created to help us is in fact shaping us. More specifically, Turkle is concerned that we are turning to “machines” to address human vulnerabilities that machines can never address. Unable to meet our needs with what is real, we are looking to what seems to be real, but what is this bond with machines doing to us? What will be the long-term effects on persons and society?

Turkle is not anti-tech, after all, she’s taught at MIT for over thirty years. But I read her book as a cautionary tale, warning us not to put too much hope in tech. As she comments late in the book, “We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything” (284). Indeed, we’re looking to tech as if it were God.

Part One of the book, then, explores the development of robotics over the last forty years, mainly because this industry has taken a decided turn toward “affective robots” that mimic human behavior, speech, and emotions. They explicitly offer the illusion of companionship. This movement is perhaps the most graphic display of what is more broadly true of the relationship between human beings and our machines—we are forming attachments to them that expose our unique vulnerabilities and portend novel disappointments and unique depressions. That is, since the machines we have created offer only the illusion of reality, we will eventually discover that they cannot deliver the hope we hoped they would.

Part Two of the book explores “the network” to which we are constantly connected via our computers, pads, and smartphones. In this section, Turkle gives special attention to teens and young adults, as her primary concern is what will come of our relationship to technology. She’s very concerned by what she sees. Young people are ceaselessly tethered to the Net, and yet they are ever more distant from one another, less able to form deep bonds, less able to engage in meaningful and extended conversation, less sure of their own worth, less certain of their own identities. Young people are caught up in a world where superficial connection has replaced intimacy, and this, Turkle warns, will have a detrimental impact on our children and our emerging society. Many youth are discontent with what is, but most see no way of escape.

The Conclusion and Epilogue draw these two streams together but by then the reader understands that the story of robotics and the story of networking are one in the same story. Again, affective robots are simply the most graphic expression of what is more broadly true—we are forming bonds with our machines and expecting of them what they can never deliver to us.

Turkle’s analysis of the state and direction of technology, psychology, and sociology is penetratingly accurate, however, she offers little in the way of solutions. She does call her readers to careful self- and societal-reflection, but she does not press into the nature of the unmet needs we are attempting to address with our machines. From a biblical point of view, it is obvious that we have made idols of our technology. We are looking to them as God-substitutes and exchanging the reality of communion with God (and others) for the appearance of communion. We are content with “less than” because we have convinced ourselves that it’s “more than.”

But our souls will never be satisfied until they are satisfied in God and we learn from him how to form deep bonds with one another. For this we were created, and therefore the path to life is to look to Jesus and obey the great commandment: “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31).

As Jesus grants the grace to do this, our machines will take their proper place and we will use them for the glory of God rather than the satisfaction of our souls. 

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