Book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Alone Together
Alone Together

I found this book by Sherry TurkleAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Amazon) fascinating, and think it’s worth a read for anyone who creates digital experiences, or just worries about their consumption of them.

Things That Stood Out For Me

How people interact with robots, what does “it’s alive enough” mean? Do we want to interact with robots because it is simpler, a robot can give us the illusion of the support and affection we crave, without the demands that other humans place on us?

Having robot carers for the young and old, the benefit is that they can always be there, but what about the downside? “Shouldn’t there be people for that?”.

Avoiding phone calls, because it seems intrusive, and yet feeling left out of one another’s  lives. The way we stay in touch has changed. I’ve noticed that people find it weird that I call them – that to me, is something I do when I’m in the same timezone as someone. My “close” friends, I want to hang out with or have a “realtime” conversation with every week – and that means the phone.

Using online experiences like second life to explore areas of ourselves (example of artist programmer), and to escape – being immersed in a video game, and playing for such long hours, that miss out on life, fail at work etc.

Confessional communities – sometimes people confess rather than make amends, and the “secrets” may not actually be true. People may say that the negative comments aren’t important, but they still effect them. Good discussion about Post Secret, which I personally love to read every week. When I went to the Post Secret show, every seat had a postcard to write a secret on… I bought a card, wrote the pertinent part of my secret, and gave it to the person my secret was about instead. In the end, I felt – why send it a stranger to be maybe posted on a website? That does nothing. Maybe the option I chose did nothing either, but it at least felt less futile.

Anxiety – students experience of 9/11 was of disconnection, as teachers ushered them to the basement (reminiscent of the cold war era), and lack of connectivity (lack of phone) can make them anxious. They don’t really understand the terms and conditions of the sites they use, and have little expectation of privacy – one even talked about going to find a pay phone for conversations he wanted to keep private, and bemoaned them being hard to find. The level of maintenance that goes into profiles is stressful, and the way that online bleeds into offline can be anxiety-inducing.

Idea that online apologies are worthless; they are too easy.

The way people feel about people using cellphones rather than being fully present with them – especially kids around their parents. They are there, yet not.

Things It Made Me Think About

When I started reading this book, I was feeling the disappointment of human relationships that don’t live up to expectations. Breakups. Friends who let you down. People who are less than honest. Robot friends, I wasn’t sure about – (most of) my friends are so amazing, I don’t need an alternative or a backup. But the idea of a robot boyfriend? That appealed. It wouldn’t cancel on me at the last minute, be threatened by my job, make snarky remarks about how much money I must earn, resent business trips. It could do practical things like wait in for the plumber, reach high shelves (maybe?), carry my suitcase up the stairs when the elevator breaks (again), stoke my hair when I come home in tears because I’ve had a crappy day. And, let’s be brutally honest, the other physical aspects that I miss.

The book challenged me in these ways – to reconsider that the other appeal of that, is because it would allow me to have a selfish “romantic” relationship, one where I wouldn’t need to face the fear of being let down, or the difficult negotiations around priorities and time – it would be on my terms.

It made me consider that my ways of keeping in touch – blogging, status updates… the way people might perceive a lack of personalisation there, that they deserve. I could make more effort to be personal. One of my close friends wrote me a letter the other day as part of a project she’s doing. When she told me she was going to write me one I wondered why – we speak every day – but then I found it on my desk, and read it, and it was lovely. Really lovely. That piece of paper is a special thing that I’ll keep.

By the end of the book, I felt like I appreciated my human relationships more. I still see the appeal of a robot – something that wouldn’t let you down – but the special things about humans is when they don’t let you down, they could have. The complexity, the difficulty, and the unpredictability of human relationships is part of what makes them special. A robot replacement might be safer, but we would be the poorer for it.

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5 thoughts on “Book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

  1. Hi Cate, just watched a ted talk of hers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7Xr3AsBEK4#t=194 and thought you would like her topics, so I searched and found this on your blog. Lots of food for thought. I’ve always had a hard time thinking through the pros vs. cons of virtual communication and this helped a lot to clarify what I need to be aiming for and avoiding!

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    1. Rachelle I love that story! It is an awesome book, she has a new one coming out that I’m really looking forward to reading too 🙂

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