How We’re Becoming Slaves to Technology, Explained by an MIT Sociologist
“We’re always on, always plugged in, always stimulated, always in a constant state of self-presentation.”
by Sean Illing
Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist at MIT, has explored these questions for more than two decades. The author of several books, including Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle isn’t anti-technology. But she is concerned that we’re failing to appreciate how it’s altering human life.
Her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, is a warning about the consequences of living in a world where face-to-face interaction is less and less frequent. We live on and through our screens, and we’re always plugged in, always distracted. She believes this has changed how we think, feel, and interact with one another. For Turkle, at least, it’s transforming what it means to be human.
I spoke with Turkle via Skype about why her views on technology have changed and why she thinks we have to reexamine the role that smartphones and social media are playing in our daily lives.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your book Life on the Screen was published in 1995 and it was noticeably optimistic about this new digital world. By the time you wrote Alone Together, in 2011, that optimism was gone. What changed?
In a word, mobile technology. Mobile technology means we’re always on, always plugged in, always stimulated, always in a constant state of self-presentation. Psychologically, that’s a game changer. For nearly all of human history, people were able to find silence and solitude pretty easily — that was just part of the human condition.
I watched all this happen and decided to go out into the field and spend time with families with small children. I watched kids grow up, spent time in classrooms, and saw how these changes were impacting their development. I started thinking a lot about the self and identity and how this mobile world was transforming it in ways we needed to understand.
This is why I became so interested in the themes I’m exploring now — the flight from conversation, the flight from solitude, the flight from silence, the flight from boredom, all of these things that are so important to our development and to our ability to be with other people.
“Just because we invented a powerful technology doesn’t mean we have to become its slaves”
You’ve called face-to-face conversations “the most human thing we do.” What are the consequences of living in a world where we do this less and less?
Well, I’m not so sure we’re going to continue doing it less and less. We grew up with the internet, so we think the internet is grown up, but it’s not. The internet is very young, and our ways of using it are very young. I think we’re starting to see a backlash. Yes, there are many things about the internet that are amazing, like the fact that we’re having this conversation right now.
But there are certain kinds of communication that can’t be done via texting or video messages or whatever, and I think people are starting to see that. If you want to be a true friend or partner or lover or colleague and you want to really connect, then you have to look at the person you’re engaged with; you have to actually be with them. That’s how progress is made. I think enough people are beginning to understand this.
You’ve written a lot about empathy and how these technologies are making it harder for us to be empathic. I wonder if you think they’re encouraging us to treat other people as objects or as actors in our own personal drama. As you say, we’re always living through our screens, always performing, always projecting our image and our story.
That’s an interesting way to put it — that we become actors in our own personal drama. I think, over time, the so-called “internet of things” emerges and then we sort of become things on the internet. We talk a lot about authenticity, but actually what we’re doing is curating the self, and that’s what I worry about in terms of empathy.
Empathy requires that I get into your mental space, into your head, into your experience, and give you the comfort of knowing that I made that effort to listen and care, and that I’m taking responsibility for what I hear. It’s a commitment that we make to other people that involves us getting out of our own heads, and the constant self-curation online, the constant self-gratification of smartphones and social media, makes it harder for us to do this.
The thing about something like Facebook is that it’s not really authentic. People are curating what they share on Facebook; they’re always putting on their happy face. They’re posting about their fancy dinner or their fancy vacation or their fancy outfit. It’s not real, or at least it’s not the whole picture of our complicated lives. But empathy is about diving into other people’s sadness, and there’s just not much space for that on social media.
You’ve interviewed a lot of people who have embraced new technologies because they thought it would make them happier, more empowered, and more connected. Has it?
I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer to those questions. I mean, the students in Parkland, Florida, are using technology in ways that are making them more empowered as they wage this battle for gun control. The fact that they’re fluent with social media, that they know to leverage it into more coverage on TV and in print, is a great thing. They grew up with this technology, and they’re empowered by it.
So I’m not anti-technology — that’s too simplistic. I’m pro-relationships and pro-conversations and pro-communities and pro-politics. I want people to be media-savvy and to use it to their best advantage. These new technologies can be empowering and they can help us connect with other people, but they can also divide us and make us more lonely and isolated.
“We grew up with the internet, so we think the internet is grown up, but it’s not”
I want to ask you about a distinction you make between “technological values” and “human values.” I’d argue that this is no longer a meaningful distinction, that technological values have essentially become human values and that our society is now guided almost exclusively by technology, for better or worse.
To the degree that you’re right — and I don’t want to say that you’re wrong — it’s time to start backpedaling because that’s not going to get us where we need to go. Our technological values are values that make technology work better, but they don’t necessarily have any social value.
Our technologies aren’t necessarily helping us live a good and meaningful life. They’re not necessarily making us better citizens or friends or colleagues. What you’re describing is a dystopia that I don’t want to live in and I don’t want my daughter to live in. Technology that shapes human life without any human input is of no interest to me.
I agree, and I guess that’s my point. We’re not really asking questions about what the good life looks like or what it means to be engaged citizens. We’re simply creating new technologies and then organizing our lives around them after they’ve already overwhelmed us.
It’s time to make a change, and as consumers, we have to demand that change. If you object to what a piece of technology is doing to you, don’t buy it. If you notice that your iPhone is making you less present or more self-involved, don’t buy it — or at least demand that it be designed differently. I’m starting to see this already in the world of smartphones. People are saying, “This is making me crazy; my phone is leading me around. I need a device that’s more respectful of my time.”
Just because we invented a powerful technology doesn’t mean we have to become its slaves. I think we fell in love with this incredible technology we invented. We were like young lovers who didn’t want to talk because they thought it would ruin the romance. But now it’s time to talk. It’s time to talk about this technology we fell in love with. We’re not young lovers anymore. It’s time to say, “Hey, let’s make this technology suit our purposes, and our purposes are human purposes.”
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