Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York: Basic, 2011
It would be foolish to refute the core premise of Sherry Turkle’s third installment in her series on computers and people: technology – specifically, robots and computers – have taken on agency in their relationships to humans. Her anecdotal approach threads a compelling argument through selections from her psychoanalytic research that includes over 450 subjects, of all ages. In Turkle’s estimation, computers have become what occupies us, keeping us always tethered and networked, rather than remaining our occupational instruments. Likewise, her staunch humanism views the advent of robotics that go beyond artificial intelligence by performing social functions like caring and emotion as a pivotal “robotic moment” for our lives, and for our concepts of life as such. The stakes of being-human, on her account, are changing, and not necessarily for the better.
If there is a fundamental difference between this robotic moment, this networked society, and earlier psychic and social formations, Turkle does not name it a radical break. Instead, she works hard to show the patterns of technological and social development that have led into these situations. “Relationships with robots are ramping up; relationships with people are ramping down,” she offers early on (19), to illustrate the long-term process that she traces here. And this is certainly a long-term set of changes. The roots of robotics and computing reach back farther that most authors care to admit, least of all those claiming to treat issues of internal subjectivity, or trauma. Modern human-computer interfaces in the United States, for example, emerge early after World War II, borne of physicists and other scientific minds whose talents no longer needed to develop technologies of violence. These geneses are not lost on Turkle, though her stories begin with, and focus throughout on, contemporary subjects, from children to adults.
In the first half of this volume, Turkle draws on the hundreds of interviews, group sessions, and observations she has conducted over the course of several years. Her attention, laced through anecdotes of people’s times with Tamagotchis, Furbys, AIBOs, My Real Babies, and other “feeling” machines – told, always, through the psychotherapist’s eyes – is on the “robotic moment.” Here, most centrally, she insists that the fundamental change is neither technical nor social but psychic: “The arc of this story does not reflect new abilities of machines to understand people, but people’s changing ideas about psychotherapy and the workings of their own minds, both seen in more mechanistic terms” (44). Moving from toys to care-taking and companionate robots, she marks the consequences of this shift in stark terms. The ethical implications of a shift in ontological assumptions has been long debated, but Turkle reframes the “is a robot a person” debate, from science fiction to social reality. She muses that the ability to address a robot – and to feel that it addresses you, in turn – changes the criteria by which we define life. Biology becomes peripheral, she suggests, and wonders, if a robot can make you love it – is it alive? More saliently, does being-alive matter, to ethical questions, or to definitions of social life?
Turning to matters of human to human interaction, mediated through computers, Turkle does not leave these problems behind. Our deeply mediated interactions with one another rely on an intense and often invisible network. Invisible, that is, until it fails. This raises the stronger point; our interactions now rely on perpetual connectivity. Being together means we must be tethered to a third network – at least until personal servers become viable options for storing our vast recorded databases of personal information, and even then, the reach of internet-based social media may have entrenched itself more deeply than many of us care to admit until pressed. Being together means being alone, then – in the sense that we must each attend to our devices nearly constantly. Turkle points out the strange inversion here. We may have begun to use computers to connect to one another; now our computers us, our interactions, to connect to one another. It is no exaggeration that the loss of connectivity or hardware can cause deep anxiety to many of us. Likewise, Turkle does not stretch reason to explain young peoples’ nostalgia for an imagined past in which the self existed in a less mediated, copied, avatared state – the allure of solitude has its roots in the same changes as that anxiety of isolation. Further, when we are physically together, but each attending to a different mediation of something absent, we perform the same half-presence as we expect from automatons. These are not so separate, the robotic moment and the networked life.
Where they explicitly overlap, we often experience it as a glitch. When our connection on a conversation fails, for example, we are made suddenly aware of the technical complexity that undergirds our everyday communication. When a robotic toy’s or companion’s power source begins to fade, its behavior becomes abberant, frightening, dangerous – but always affective. Beyond expected protestations of love or urgency, focused on our immediate, eventual, and ongoing investment of emotion or labor, glitches make visible the material differences between humans and machines, at the same time that they shatter the perception that machines somehow remain immune to problems, imperfection, or failure – a striking similarity to humans, after all. Moments of crisis for the robot or computer throw our own fragile distinctions, humanism included, into stark relief.
There are lessons like this one to be continually relearned, on the strengths of Turkle’s arguments. Whether there is, after all, a distinct moment now underway for humans’ and machines’ relationships; whether such a moment does, after all, depend upon slow psychic and social shifts (as against, say, instantaneous recognition of non-biological sentience, such as robotic self-consciousness); whether we have ever existed alone, OR together, before now — all these debates, raised and considered quite carefully in the book, slough aside, and one question remains. How will we treat one another on the basis of new and more deeply integrated technologies at every facet of our lives – and, if we recognize machines as Others, how will we treat them on the same basis? No easy answers float to the surface of these murky depths, but Turkle’s admirable effort to parse these psychic, social, and ethical questions for a broad audience has won my respect.