Alone Together – Sherry Turkle

A green thought bubbleHere are some comments about Together Alone. I wrote them in response to a query about Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together.” They got to be way too long for the class forum, so I’ve put them here. The comments were prompted by the paper by Frank Pasquale “The Algorithmic Self:” Pasquale, F. (2015). The algorithmic self. The Hedgehog Review, 17(1). Available at: http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2015_Spring_Pasquale.php

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle goes in two directions. The first direction is in discussing emotional technology–technology that can affect human emotions and attitudes. Examples go from the primitive, but compelling “therapist” ELIZA to a Furby and beyond. She’s dubious on the wisdom of them.

Paro is a seal-like emotive robot that was designed to comfort elderly people, which it can be successful at. It uses comforting sounds and interactions to help the person’s anxiety and loneliness. Sherry Turkle is appalled by that; She feels strongly that people who are in the end stages of their life deserve someone who can understand and share meaning with them instead of a piece of machinery that provides comfort through synthetic trickery, but shares no meaning. (Part of her attitude that led to the book started when she and other MIT researchers were testing Paro. The others were enthusiastic and excited while Sherry was turned away from that line of research based on, to her, the repugnance of the experience.)

Partly from her discussion and partly my opinionated part, The Algorithmic Self’s argument “If there really is no alternative, no human or animal available to show concern or affection, isn’t the Paro better than nothing?” is a false dichotomy. There are people who could care and support individuals, society just doesn’t value it. It could a service just as important as home health care workers and volunteers who support younger people that can’t meet all of their own needs.

People don’t see the elderly in a nursing home or those needing advanced support, so they can ignore the problem. The comment that “care needs could easily overwhelm private means and public coffers” should be shocking in that once people reach a certain level of disability, they’re not important enough to get human comfort and attention. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” would be a relevant cliche.

The second part of the book is interviews about people who communicate with technology such as texting, social media and email and don’t deal with the messy person to person contact directly or through voice conversations. She considers the technologial dependency a psychological symptom from a psychoanalytic perspective. She reports on interviews and individuals’ ambivalence to the technologies, while still not being able to pull away from. Many couldn’t complete the thought that maybe it would be ok to do something different. Some people she interviewed weren’t comfortable, but didn’t see an alternative.

The subtitle of the book is “Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.” Her conclusion discusses the connection with her mother through saved correspondence. She hopes for something similar with her distant daughter. “Perhaps we need at least the fiction that we are not archiving. For surely, in the archived life, we begin to live for the record, for how we shall be seen.”

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