Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sherry Turkle II

I've finished reading the book and have gradually become more disappointed in it for reasons that I'll explain later. Even so, Sherry Turkle has done her homework and provides ample documentation of the way lives have recently been altered by technology. The main areas that she examines are solitude, self-reflection, family, friendship, romance, education and work. I have found her anecdotes informative, because I don't otherwise get this exposure, and I'll copy a few more quotes that are interesting and instructive to me.

In spring 2014 Kati is interested in politics, the Italian Renaissance, and training for the Boston Marathon. When she goes to parties, she reports that there is a lot of texting. Here is what she tells me: At any party, her friends are texting friends at other parties to figure out "whether we are at the right party." Kati says, "Maybe we can find a better party. Maybe there are better people at a party just down the block." Kati is describing how smartphones and social media have infused friendship with the Fear of Missing Out – now a feeling so well known that most people just call it by its acronym, FOMO. In its narrow definition, the acronym stands for tensions that follow from knowing so much about the lives of others because of social media. You develop self-doubt from knowing that so many of your friends are having enviable fun.

Arjun, a college senior, gave me another way to view why people turn away from a friend and to a phone. For him, the phone not only serves up comforting friends; it is a new kind of friend in itself. The phone itself is a source of solace.

Comments from teachers about the students at a competitive, private middle school:
Students don't make eye contact.
They don't respond to body language.
They have trouble listening. I have to rephrase a question many times before a child will answer a question in class.
I'm not convinced they are interested in each other. It is as though they all have some signs of being on an Asperger's spectrum. But that's impossible. We're talking about a schoolwide problem.
They are talking at each other with local comments, minutia really, short bursts, as though they were speaking texts. They are communicating immediate social needs. They aren't listening to each other.
The most painful thing to watch is that they don't know when they have hurt each other's feelings. They hurt each other, but then you sit down with them and try to get them to see what happened and they can't imagine things from the other side.
My students can build websites, but they can't talk to teachers. And students don't want to talk to other students. They don't want the pressure of conversation.

Women talk about being on dates with men and going to the bathroom to check their phones to see who else has contacted them. They say that they feel a little guilty, but over time, acting on the impulse to check your phone – to check your options – comes to feel normal. Consider Madeleine, thirty-two, a financial analyst in New York. She's out to drinks with a group of friends, including a man who seems interested in her. But, phone-enabled, she is clear that "drinks do not imply the entire evening." Messages on her phone mean "things could go anywhere." In this world, she says, "if I get a message from a guy who interests me and I want to leave the group of friends I'm with, I do. I usually go to the ladies' room to set things up so I'm not sitting at the table where people can look over my shoulder as I get too specific about my next plan."

When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurochemical high so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse. We've seen that not only do multitaskers have trouble deciding how to organize their time, but over time, they "forget" how to read human emotions.

It was only when Elizabeth returned to the university that she saw the full effect of years spent multitasking, a life lived in hyper attention. Now, as a graduate, she has been assigned an excerpt of Plato's Republic for an ethics class. "I had skimmed the chapter, as was my habit, then, realizing that I hadn't retained much, reread it again and even made a few notes. Unfortunately, on the day of the class, I did not have that notebook with me, and while I remembered the overall gist of the chapter (moderation – good; desire for luxury – bad), I struggled to recall the specific ideas expressed in it. Without access to my cell phone to refer to the article or read up on Plato on Wikipedia, I wasn't able to participate in the class discussion. Having access to information is always wonderful, but without having at least some information retained in your brain, I am not able to build on those ideas or connect them together to form new ones."

This senior physician is sad as he considers his students' discomfort: "They don't want to take responsibility for the things that might come up in a conversation, things that would come out during a full-patient history. They don't want to hear that their patients are anxious, depressed or frightened. Doctors used to want to hear these things. They knew that the whole person got sick. The whole person needed to be treated. Today, young physicians don't want to have that conversation. My students welcome the fact that the new medical records system almost forces them to turn away from the patient and keep the interchange about relevant details. They don't want to step into a more complicated role.

As I was concluding work on this book I attended a large international meeting that had a session called "Disconnect to Connect." There, psychologists, scientists, technologists, and members of the business community considered our affective lives in the digital age. There was widespread agreement that there is an empathy gap among young people who have grown up emotionally disconnected while constantly connected to phones, games, and social media.

While I think that Sherry Turkle is to be commended for examining and publicizing the effects of new technology on human lives, I also think that her analysis falls short in several respects. The tone of the book, from start to finish, is that of a psychologist who has seen an increase in troubled patients and has pinpointed the source in addictive new technology. Her prescriptions read like a self-help manual: the patients are to put away their smartphones and start having face-to-face conversations with those around them, whether at home, school or work. If only it were that simple. Like Turkle, I would prefer to be surrounded by sensitive people who were interested in interacting with me and were capable of articulating their ideas, but the obstacles to that are far more significant than she suggests. She repeatedly harks back to memories of her grandmother, who lived under conditions considerably different from those we live in today. She also idealizes more recent times that I am old enough to remember. I have lived in the U.S. for nearly sixty years, and I recall having the open-ended discussions that she relishes, mostly as an undergraduate liberal arts student. Outside that period, I have generally found people to be too private, too scared, too inarticulate or too uninterested to have what I would consider to be a satisfactory face-to-face discussion of any depth. My early home life, and, as far as I can tell, the home lives of most of my contemporaries, did not provide the conversational opportunities that Turkle seems to think were flourishing then. When I entered the workforce, conditions worsened, with coworkers tending to be too protective of their source of income to take many risks. The baby boomers I've known have their own set of undesirable characteristics. Thus, for most of my life I have had to content myself with at most one or two people who are willing and able to participate in a decent conversation. Turkle's thoughtful and articulate people have always been a rarity in my life. As I suggested in my last post, Turkle seems to inhabit a humanistic academic bubble that isn't representative of broad American culture. Her research and writing seem to focus on elites who have the resources to address concerns that everyone else puts up with quietly.

From my point of view, a deeper analysis of Turkle's subject matter would include a closer look at its sociological aspects. For example, the gadgets and apps that seem to be causing many of the problems would not necessarily exist if we didn't live in a capitalistic society. Turkle's stressed-out, insensitive multitaskers might be more relaxed and happier if they lived either in an agrarian or a post-capitalist society. There is no reference in her book to this fact, and I find a more significant, if more abstract, account of the origins of modern tensions in works such as Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Without capitalism, there would be no Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, or any of their products. In the absence of a highly competitive job market it would be much easier for people to act spontaneously and lose that unpleasant robotic veneer. Here I think Turkle may have a conflict of interest in the sense that she does not want to alienate corporate leaders who currently provide her with access that is crucial to her work.

On the whole, Turkle remains firmly planted in the humanities camp. That isn't surprising if you consider that her earliest research was on Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Although she is careful not to blaspheme against AI and robotics, she obviously sees them as parts of the problem and allows little or no place for them in any solution. This, I think, is where her imagination fails her. To be sure, her long presence at M.I.T. has made her fully cognizant of the past failures of AI and robotics with respect to human interface. However, in my opinion, extant anthropocentrism in the humanities precludes the possibility of her allowing that AI may one day surpass human capabilities across the board, even as it demonstrates positive emotional capabilities that are in no way inferior to ours. At that point researchers like Turkle, rather than defending human uniqueness, may well join the technological bandwagon and acknowledge that posthuman life may actually have more to offer than the lives to which we're accustomed.

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