On True Connection v. Connectivity

On True Connection v. Connectivity

I recently heard Bill Moyers interview Sherry Turkle about the impact of cyber-technology on relationships and our communications, based on Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect more From Technology and Less From Each Other.

Turkle is a clinical psychologist, professor at MIT, developer of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, and is considered the world’s leading expert on the impact of computers on culture and society.  Turkle has spent 25 years researching the benefits, but also the costs, of the social-digital revolution of the last two plus decades, and the mobile devices that provide access 24/7 to the internet, e-mail, instant messaging, texting, chat rooms, online virtual avatars, social profiles, virtual identities, gaming and social networking, especially on “digital natives,” children 5-20 years of age who have grown up with i-phones and ipads in their book bags, if not in their strollers and cribs.

Turkle is a deep thinker, and elegant writer, and raises important questions about how we see ourselves and relate to others as human beings in this rapidly evolving digital world. While acknowledging the enormous benefit of digital information at our fingertips through the internet, and the ease/comfort of communicating with loved ones, friends, and colleagues from anywhere at all, at any time at all, Turkle suggests we’re at risk of losing capacities that make us most human in our connections – negotiation, compromise, even vulnerability, tolerating let alone embracing the complexity that our communications and conversations deserve.

While I’m of the age to be a “digital immigrant,” I, too, marvel that I can back up documents (like the entire manuscript of my book) in the cloud and not risk losing them if my computer crashes; that I can avoid lines and traffic and buy concert tickets online, that I can listen to the podcast or read the transcript of Bill Moyers interview online and pass the link on to you.  It’s all marvelous how our communications can improve connections, and yet I, too, am guilty of sending an e-mail when I need to be “efficient” and avoid the risk of spending too much time in a “real” conversation with another human being.  Increasingly I share Turkle’s concern that “social networking offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” and the implications for decreasing authenticity and empathy in human relationships.

Turkle’s research findings are compelling, and sometimes challenging to our blithe acceptance of the accelerating pace of technological change that, in fact, changes us and how we connect with others , sometimes without realizing how deeply. I realize this newsletter is a long post, not a text or a tweet.  It explores many complex concepts; it requires attention and reflection.  You may wish to print or archive it to read and digest later.  I do hope, as we head into a season of possibly deepening connections with those we love, that these reflections and tools may be useful to you and yours.


Sherry Turkle has been called the Margaret Mead of our digital culture and researches how cybertechnology can be used to create both connections and to buffer us from intimacy simultaneously.  A harried mother in her late forties told Turkle this story about connectivity rather than true connection:

“I needed to find a new nanny.  When I interview nannies, I like to go to where they live, so that I can see them in their environment, not just in mine.  So, I made an appointment to interview Ronnie, who had applied for the job.  I show up at her apartment and her housemate answers the door.  She is a young woman, around twenty-one, texting on her BlackBerry.  Her thumbs are bandaged.  I look at them, pained at the tiny thumb splints, and I try to be sympathetic. “That must hurt.”  But she just shrugs.  She explains that she is still able to text.  I tell her I am here to speak with Ronnie; this is her job interview.  Could she please knock on Ronnie’s bedroom door?  The girl with the bandage thumbs looks surprised.  “Oh no,” she says, “I would never to that.  That would be intrusive. I’ll text her.”  And so she sent a message to Ronnie, no more than fifteen feet away.”

Turkle’s message is a provocative plea for the prioritization of deep and meaningful connections rather than the stimulation of connectivity.

“This is a technology to which we are particularly vulnerable in certain ways.  A mother adores being with her children.  And yet with this technology, she is so vulnerable to the stimulation of knowing what the next message is on her cell phone that when she picks her kid up at school and the kid comes into the car, this is the gesture she makes to her child.  ‘Let me just finish this one last email.  Let me just get this one message.’

“And does not make eye contact with the child as the child comes in.  It’s the desire to look at that one last message that causes her to go like that to her child.  Now that’s not saying there’s anything wrong with a cell phone.  It’s saying that we are so vulnerable to the seduction of who wants to reach us, that sweetness of something new that’s coming into us on our phone, that we’re really at a point where we turn away from our kids.”

At the heart of Turkle’s concern is what she calls the “Goldilocks effect.”  “With our capacities to edit how we present ourselves through an e-mail or text, in an online profile or on Facebook, we can avoid the vulnerability and messiness of “real” contact and intimacy while getting the sweet satisfaction of a neurochemical high from being connected digitally to more and more people.  Not too close, not too distant….just right.  Connecting with more and more others – all carefully kept at bay.  We can hide from each other, even while we are tethered together.”

Turkle shares her concerns about the Goldilocks effect, especially on the younger generations, with many examples from her research.

a.  Being seduced by the neurochemical hit of constant connection – at a safe distance.

“Our digital devices rev us up and put us in a neurochemical state – the instant connection, instant reward that someone is reaching out to us – where we’re less able to come back and be part of the give and take of an ordinary human conversation. The virtual connections become more convenient, more “real” than the messy, unpredictability of relating to real people in the mundane ordinary real world.

“Our neurochemical response to every ping and ring tone seems to be the one elicited by the “seeking” drive, a deep motivation of the human psych.  Connectivity becomes a craving; when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine.  We are stimulated by connectivity itself.  We learnt to require it, even as it depletes us.  A new generation already suspects this is the case.

“Robin, twenty-six, a young woman in advertising, complains that her life has been swallowed by the demands of e-mail.  When I first meet her, she has what she describes as a “nervous rash” and says she is going on a retreat in western Canada to “detox from my e-mail.”  When I run into her three months later, there has been no retreat. She has found a doctor who diagnosed her rash as eczema.  She explains that it can be brought on by stress, so surely e-mail had its role to play.  But there is a pill she can take and a cream she can apply.  And if she does all of this, she can stay online.  It is easier to fix the eczema than to disconnect.

Turkle has found that people talk with other people waiting to be interrupted by the next text, the next email.  People experience these interruptions as the new “real” connection.  And that anticipation changes what people will talk about and how deeply they’ll talk about it, how much of an investment they’ll make in the conversation, the nature or the degree of emotional content they will put into a conversation.  It’s keeping us more at the surface of things.  The emoticon emotions of texting signal rather than express feelings. Technology ramps up and our emotional lives ramp down.  We can experience moments of MORE in lives that feel less.

Turkle has found that we can get the same hit from multi-tasking on our mobile devices.

“Our networked devices encourage a new notion of time because they promise that one can layer more activities on to it. Because you can text while doing something else, texting does not seem to take time but to give you time.

“Yet research studies show decisively that your behavior, your performance degrades for every new task you multitask.  So when you add a new task, your performance degrades in all of the tasks you’re doing.  But there’s a catch.  You think you’re doing better in each of the tasks you’re doing. Multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking “high.”  The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive.  Continual partial attention.  But actually, multitaskers don’t perform as well on any of the tasks they are attempting.”

b.  Shallowing the value of real-time relationships and communicating with people directly

“These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology.  Most of the time, we carry that technology with us.  In fact, being alone can start to seem like a pre-condition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen.  In this new regime, train stations, airports, cafés, or parks are no longer communal spaces but places of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other.  Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal.”

Turkle cites a  2010 analysis of data from over fourteen thousand college students over the past thirty years.  The research shows that since the year 2000, young people have reported a dramatic decline in interest in other people.  Today’s college students are, for example far less likely to say that it is valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings.  The authors of this study associate student’s lack of empathy with the availability of online games and social networking.  An online connection can be deeply felt, but you only need to deal with the part of the person you see in your game world or social network.  Young people don’t seem to feel they need to deal with more, and over time they lose the inclination.  One might say that absorbed in those they have “friended,” children lose interest in friendship.

Turkle experiences this teaching her own classes at MIT. “I was teaching a class on memoir ; students were sharing fantastic stories about their lives. And a group of the class came to me and said, “You know, we’re texting in class. And, you know, we feel bad because the rest of the kids, I mean, they’re talking about their lives.” I learned how deeply people want to be in their personal networks in a public space, alone together.  We ask less of people and more of technology. She offers as an example from her research an 18-year old boy who uses texting for almost everything.  He said to Turkle wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”   Sometimes you don’t have time for your friends except if they are online.

c.  Protecting ourselves from having to connect by retreating into connectivity.

“A thirty-six-year-old nurse at a large Boston hospital begins her day with a visit to her mother.  Then she shops for food, cleans the house, and gets ready for work.  After an eight-hour shift and dinner, it is after 9pm.  ‘I am in no state to socialize,”  she says.  “I don’t even have the energy to try to track people down by phone. My friends from nursing school are all over the country.  I send some e-mails. I got onto Facebook and feel less alone.  Even when people are not there exactly when I’m there, it seems like they’re there.  I have their new pictures, the last thing they were doing.  I feel caught up.’

“A widow of fifty-two grew up on volunteer work and people stopping by for afternoon tea.  Now she works full-time as an office manager.  Unaccustomed to her new routine, she says she is “somewhat surprised” to find that she has stopped calling friends.  She is content to send e-mails and Facebook messages.  She says, ‘A call feels like an intrusion, as though I would be intruding on my friends.  But also, if they call me, I feel they are intruding.   After work, I want to go home, look at some photos from the grandchildren on Facebook, send some e-mails and feel in touch.  I’m tired.  I’m not ready for people – I mean people in person.’  Both women feel put upon by what used to be sustaining, a telephone call.  Its design flaw: it can only happen in real time.  The flight to e-mail begins as a solution to fatigue.  It ends with people having a hard time summoning themselves for a telephone call, and certainly not for “people in person.”

“Dan, a law professor in his mid-fifties, explains that he never “interrupts” his colleagues at work.  He does not call; he does not ask to see them.  He says, ‘They might be working, doing something.  It might be a bad time.’  I ask him if this behavior is new.  He says, ‘Oh, yes, we used to hang out.  It was nice.’   He reconciles his view that once collegial behavior now constitutes interruption by saying, ‘People are busier now.’  But then he pauses and corrects himself.  ‘I’m not being completely honest here: it’s also that I don’t want to talk to people now. I don’t want to be interrupted.  I think I should want to, it would be nice, but is easier to deal with people on my BlackBerry.’

“This widespread attitude makes things hard for Hugh, twenty-five, who says that he “needs more than e-mails and Facebook can provide.”  If his friends don’t have time to see him, he wants them to talk to him on the phone so that he can have “the full attention of the whole person.”  But when he texts his friends to arrange a call, Hugh says that he has to make in intentions clear: he wants “private cell time.”  He explains, “This is the time when the person you are calling makes a commitment that they will not take calls from other people.  They are not doing anything else.”  He says he feels more rejected when, while speaking on the phone with a friend he becomes aware that his friend is also texting or on Facebook, something that happens frequently.  “I don’t even want them to be walking.  I can’t have a serious conversation with someone whey they are on their way from one sales meeting to another.  Private cell time is the hardest thing to get.  People don’t want to make the commitment.”

Why does this matter? It matters to Turkle because she thinks we’re setting ourselves up for trouble.

“If you feel that you’re always on call, you start to hide from the rigors of things that unfold in real time. Over and over I hear, “I would rather text than talk.” And what I’m seeing is that people get so used to being short-changed out of real conversation, so used to getting by with less, that they’ve become almost willing to dispense with people altogether. That feeling that no one is listening to me is very important in our relationships with technology. That’s why it’s so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed — so many automatic listeners. And the feeling that no one is listening to me make us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us. We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together.

d. Diminishing our tolerance for the “boring bits.”

“A  big issue is whether or not we’re moving to a culture, and we are, where people can no longer tolerate what I’m calling the “boring bits” of human conversation.  I call it a “flight from conversation.”  Texts, by nature telegraphic, can certainly be emotional, insightful, and sexy.  They can lift us up.  They can make us feel understood, desired, and supported.  But they are not a place to deeply understand a problem or to explain a complicated situation.  They are momentum.  They fill a moment.  We’ve become increasingly intolerant of the way in which we stumble and make mistakes and have to backtrack, particularly when we’re talking about things that are complicated and hard.  What concerns me as a developmental psychologist is that children grow up in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment.  You can always go someplace where you’re stimulated, stimulated, stimulated.”

e.  While losing the capacity to connect deeply, simultaneously losing the capacity for solitude.

“Wireless technology promises we can always be connected to somebody somewhere, somehow, that we never have to deal with being alone.  If we lose the capacity for a healthy solitude  – the kind that refreshes and restores –  or our children never develop it, we will wind up being more plugged in than ever, only to feel more and more alone, less and less knowing who we truly are.

“Solitude – the ability to be separate, to gather yourself – is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.

“This idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention. And we even text at funerals. We remove ourselves from our grief or our reverie and we go into our phones. Today our children avoid disconnection at all cost. Some have divorced parents. Some have parents who support their families by working out of state or out of the country. Some have parents with travel schedules so demanding that their children rarely see them. Some have parents in the military who are stationed abroad. They lose touch with their “real” friends as they spend hours keeping up contacts with the “friended.” These teenagers live in a culture preoccupied with terrorism. They all experienced 9/11. They have grown up walking through metal detectors at schools and airport. They tend not to assume safe passage. The cell phone as amulet becomes emblematic of safety.

Constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being. We fill our days with ongoing connection, denying ourselves time to think and dream. Busy to the point of depletion, Turkle finds that now people feel they don’t have the right to be alone. A stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection. People feel they can’t go offline on vacation if they’re going to a place that has cell reception. One lawyer that Turkle interviewed said, “Electronic communication has been liberating, but in the end, it has put me on a speed-up, on a treadmill, but that isn’t the same as being productive. I don’t’ have enough time alone with my mind; I have to struggle to make time to think.’

f. Losing a sense of who we truly are

“We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we’re having them. So before it was: ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call.’ Now it’s: ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.’ The problem with this new regime of “I share therefore I am” is that, if we don’t have connection, we don’t feel like ourselves. We almost don’t feel ourselves. Getting a feeling validated becomes part of evoking it in the first place. So what do we do? We rely on connectivity more and more. We become other-directed. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated. What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.”

g.  Blurring the lines between “virtual” and “real”

In the late 1990’s, students at the MIT Media lab volunteered to become “cyborgs,”  By carrying computers and radio transmitters in their backpacks and keyboards in their pockets, and using digital displays clipped onto eyeglass frames, they were always wirelessly connected to the internet, always online, free from desks and cables.  The hope of the experiment was that continual connectivity would increase productivity and memory, preparing students to be better organized in an increasingly complex information environment.

Turkle, in her anthropological style of research, found that while the students felt like a new self: “It’s not just that I remember people or know more.  I feel invincible, sociable, better prepared.  I’m naked without it.  With it, I’m a better person,” they also felt more diffuse, wandering in and out of the physical real.  Once they had this device with them all the time, they didn’t have any division of time at the computer or not with the computer. They had this always on, always-on-you device, they had the possibility of being always, always in this world of the web.  Real life became just one more window among many virtual windows.  They could keep parallel lives open as windows on a screen.  They could be with you but they were always somewhere else as well.

Turkle has found this blurring of distinctions between who we are and who we fantasize we want to be

“Online worlds and role-playing games ask you to construct, edit, and perform a self.  When we perform a life through our avatars, we express our hopes, strengths, and vulnerability.  They are a kind of natural Rorschach.  We have an opportunity to see what we wish for and what we might be missing.  But more than this, we may work through blocks and address insecurities.  People can use an avatar as “practice” for real life. The internet provides a free space, especially for adolescents, to try on identities before taking them out in to the real world in a way that the real world does not.  Our lives on the screen may be play but they are serious play.

“From the earliest days of online role-playing games, there were those who saw virtual places as essential to their life off the screen because online experiences were helping them to grow. One young man told me how he had “come out” online and saw this as practice for coming out to his friends and then to his family.  A young woman who had lost a leg in a car crash and now wore a prosthetic limb felt ready to resume a sexual life after the accident but was still awkward and anxious.  She created an online avatar with a prosthetic leg and had virtual relationships.  Online she practiced talking about her prosthetic limb and taking if off before being intimate with her virtual lovers.  She grew more comfortable with her physical body through the experience of her virtual body.  In the virtual, people cultivate the skills they want to use in the real.

“In online worlds and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, you have virtuosity in fantasy – and something more: your performances put you at the center of a new community with virtual best friends and a sense of belonging.  It is not unusual for people to feel more comfortable in an unreal place than a real one because they feel that in simulation they show their better and perhaps truer self.  We hear the familiar story: life on the screen moves from being better than nothing to simply being better.  Looking to games for amusement is one thing, looking to them for life is another.  When online life becomes your game, there are new complications.  If lonely, we can find continual connection.  But this may leave you more isolated, without real people around you.  so you may return to the internet for another hit of what feels like connection. Escape to a zone where that’s all there is. The games are reassuring, their payoff guaranteed.  Real life takes too many steps and can always disappoint. You can experiment with different kinds of people, but you don’t assume the risks of real relationships.  Should you get bored or into trouble, you can move on or “retire” your avatar and start again.”

Turkle’s research is investigating the impact of multi-lifing, living online and in the real world.  With a mobile device, one moves into the virtual with fluidity.  We use social networking to be ourselves, but online identies take on a life of their own.  Virtual personalities become our “better” self.  (At MIT, Turkle has been given business cards with a person’s real life name, their Facebook handles, and the name of their avatar on Second Life.)   One man said, “I glance at my watch to sense the time; I glance at my BlackBerry to get a sense of my life.

Especially for young people, there can be real confusion between what they compose for an online life and who they really are, and how to navigate how the things they post online affect how people treat them in real life.  “We have seen young people walk the halls of their schools composing messages to online acquaintances they will never meet.  We have seen them feeling more alive when connected, then disoriented and alone when they leave their screens.  Some live more than half their waking hours in virtual places.  But they also talk wistfully about letters, face-to-face meetings, and the privacy of pay phones.  Tethered selves, they try to conjure a future different from the one they see coming by building on a past they never knew.  Where they have time alone, with nature and with each other, and with their families.  We cannot blame technology for this state of affairs.  It is people who are disappointing each other.  Technology merely enables us to create a mythology in which this does not matter.”

h. abolition of genuine privacy

It has taken a generation for people to begin to understand that on the Internet, the words “delete” and “erase” are metaphorical: files, photographs, mail and search histories are only removed from your sight.  The Internet never forgets.  The magnitude of this is hard to believe because one’s first instinct is to find it unbelievable .  The experience of being at one’s computer or cell phone feels so private that we easily forget our true circumstance: with every connection we leave an electronic trace. “That’s the one bad thing about online life,” says a high school student interviewed by Turkle.  “On a typewriter, you can take the paper out and shred it.  But if it’s online, it’s online.  People can copy and paste it; people can e-mail it to each other; people can print it. People can save it, and you don’t know they’re saving it.  Or people can copy and paste it and send it to someone else.  And all they have to do is rewrite anything they want.  They can send it to a friend, making a person look a lot worse.  Nothing you say will necessarily stay the way you said it.”

“Living with an electronic shadow begins to feel so natural that the shadow seems to disappear – that is, until a moment of crisis: a lawsuit, a scandal, an investigation.  Then we are caught short, turn around and see that we have been the instruments of our own surveillance.  The idea that you leave a trace because you make a call, send a text, or leave a Facebook message is on some level intolerable.  And so, people simply behave as thought it were not happening. Why people continue to send damaging e-mails ad texts, messages that document them breaking the law and cheating on their spouses.  People try to force themselves to mesh their behavior with what they know rather than how they feel.  But when people want to forget that they do not have privacy on the internet, the medium colludes. A teenager admits that whatever she finds out, even if her worst fears of surveillance by high schools administrators and local police were true, she would not take action.  She cannot imagine her life without Facebook.”

i.  Sociable robots

In her book Alone Together, Turkle spends half her time summarizing the findings of her research on the impact of sociable robots that are specifically designed to be companions to the elderly, to our children, to us.

“We’re developing robots, they call them sociable robots. During my research I worked in nursing homes, and I brought in these sociable robots that were designed to give the elderly the feeling that they were understood. And one day I came in and a woman who had lost a child was talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal. It seemed to be looking in her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. It comforted her. And many people found this amazing.

“But that woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life. That robot put on a great show. And we’re vulnerable. People experience pretend empathy as though it were the real thing. So during that moment when that woman was experiencing that pretend empathy, I was thinking, “That robot can’t empathize. It doesn’t face death. It doesn’t know life.”

“And as that woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing; I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments in my 15 years of work. But when I stepped back, I felt myself at the cold, hard center of a perfect storm. We expect more from technology and less from each other. People become reduced to objects and we begin to look to computerized objects foe the emotional connection we need from people. People experienced pretend empathy as though it was the real thing. We’re promised relationships where we will be in control even if that means not being in a relationship at all.”

I found Turkle’s discoveries about the impact of sociable robots so – disturbing is quite an understatement – that I chose to focus on the second half of the book the impact of digital devices and social media presented here.

As Bill Moyers said in his interview, “the advancements of digital technology are great, and so are the dangers. For every Arab Spring or political movement using social media to foment change, there may also be campaigns of abuse and hate. For every Wikileak and revealed secret, there’s the encroachment on personal privacy by the NSA. For every new friend meeting through cyberspace, there’s the risk of estrangement from the real world.


The value of Turkle’s message is not to revoke what is irrevocable but to be cautious – and conscious – taking the time to reflect and think through how to maintain what is valuable to us about  real connections with real people – and our true selves – in real time.  I’m concluding these reflections with a long excerpt from Turkle’s reflections.

“Online, we easily find “company” but are exhausted by the pressures of performance.  We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each others’ full attention.  We can have instant audiences but flatten out what we say to each other in new reductive genres of abbreviation.  We like it that the Web “knows” us, but this is only possible because we compromise our privacy, leaving electronic bread crumbs that can be easily exploited both politically and commercially.  We have many new encounters but may come to experience them as tentative, to be put “on hold” if better ones come along.  Indeed, new encounters need to be better to get our attention.  We are wired to respond positively to their simply being new.  We can work from home but our work bleeds into our private lives until we can barely discern the boundaries between them.  We like being able to reach each other almost instantaneously but have to hide our phones to force ourselves to take a quiet moment.

“Overwhelmed by the pace that technology makes possible, we think about how new, more efficient technologies might help dig us out.  But new devices encourage ever-greater volume and velocity.  In this escalation of demands, one of the things that comes from feel safe is using technology to connect to people at a distance, or more precisely, to a lot of people from a distance.  But even a lot of people from a distance can turn out to be not enough people at all.  We brag about how many we have “friended” on Facebook, yet Americans say they have fewer friends than before.  When asked in whom they can confide and to whom they turn in an emergency, more and more say that their only resource is their family.

“The ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.  But they are the ties that preoccupy.  We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, as we push our child on swings in the part.  We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in “real time.”    When we misplace our mobile devices, we bcome anxious – impossible really.  We have heard teenagers insist that even when their cell phones are not on their person, they can feel them vibrate.  “I know when I’m being called,’ says a sixteen-year-old.  “I just do.”  Sentiments of dependency echo across generations.  “I never am without my cell phone” says a fifty-two-year-old father.  “It is my protection.”

(As Bill Moyers said in his interview with Turkle, “When we lose our smart phone we can experience a potential loss of connection, not being plugged in, that can feel existentially like not being plugged into the universe, a kind of mini-death.”)

“We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately.  And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us.  Connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it is also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self.  Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own.  The two are often closely linked.

“So, for example, mobile connections help adolescents deal with difficulties of separation.  When you leave home with a cell phone, you are not as cut off as before, and you can work through separation in smaller steps.  But now you may find yourself in text contact with your parents all day.  And your friends, too, are always around.  You come to enjoy the feeling of never having to be lone.  Feeling a bit stranded used to be considered a part of adolescence, and one that developed inner resources.  Now it is something that the network makes it possible to bypass.

“The answer?  We have to look head on at the impacts of immersing ourselves in mobile technology so much that we’re not taking into account that how we misuse or overuse it can really threaten the things we care about, intimate in-depth conversations and authenticity of self.

“Because we grew up with the Net, we assume that the Net is grown-up.  We tend to see it as a technology in its maturity.  But in fact, we are in early days. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology.  We need to put it in its place.  There is time to make the corrections.  The generation that has grown up with the Net is in a good position to do this, but these young people need help.  So as they begin to fight for their right to privacy, we must be their partners.  We know how easily information can be politically abused; we have the perspective of history.  We have, perhaps, not share enough about that history with our children.  And as we have changed, turned away from them to lose ourselves in our e-mail, we did not sufficiently teach the important of empathy and attention to what is real.

“When we are at our best, thinking about technology brings us back to questions about what really matters.  When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime.  Several around me use the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service.  One of the texting mourners, a woman in here late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service.  Matter-of-factly, she offered, “I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone. “The point of the service was to take a moment.  This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible later,   I discussed the texting with some close friends.  Several shrug.  One said, “What are you going to do?’

“A shrug is appropriate for a stalemate.  That’s not where we are.  It is too early to have reached such an impasse.  Rather, I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action.  We will begin with very simple things,   Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners.  Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car or in company.  And compassion is due to those of us – and there are many of us – who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play.

“In his essay about his two years of retreat at Walden Pond nearly two centuries ago, Henry David Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”  Thoreau’s quest inspires us to ask of our life with technology: Do we live deliberately?  Do we turn away from life that is not life?  Do we refuse resignation?  To find oneself and others more directly and to live a less-mediated life, to move away from performances and toward something that feels more real.

“There are no simple answers as to whether the Net is a place to be deliberate, to commit to life, and live without resignation.  But these are good terms with which to start a conversation.  That conversation would have us ask if these are the values by which we want to judge our lives.  If they are, and if we are living in a technological culture that does not support them, how can that culture be rebuilt to specifications that respect what we treasure?

“We deserve better.  When we remind ourselves that it is we how decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.”


[All quotations are from Sherry Turkle unless otherwise attributed.]

Our little devices, those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they not only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.

Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding. And we clean them up with technology. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, “I’m thinking about you,” or even for saying, “I love you,” but they don’t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.

Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathic skills, to think about their values and identity, and to manage and express feelings.  They need time to discover themselves, time to think.  But technology, put in the service of always-on communication and telegraphic speed and brevity, has changed the rules of engagement with all of this.  When is downtime, when is stillness?  The text-driven world of rapid response does not make self-reflection impossible but  does little to cultivate it.  When inter-changes are reformatted for the small screen and reduced to the emotional shorthand of emoticons, there are necessary simplifications.

“If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted.  All my memories would probably go along with it.  And other people have posted pictures of me.  Al of that would be lost.  If Facebook were undone, I might actually freak out.  That is where I am.  It’s part of your life.  It’s a second you.  It’s your little twin on the internet.” – a 16-year old interviewee

At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish them to be, constructing them for your purposes.  It is a seductive but dangerous habit of mind.  When you cultivate this sensibility, a telephone call can seem fearsome because it reveals too much.  Randolph, a forty-six-year-old architect with two jobs, two young children, and a twelve-year-old son from a former marriage, avoids the telephone because he feels “tapped out.  It promises more that I’m willing to deliver.”  If he keeps his communications to text and e-mail, he believes he can “keep it together.”  He explains, “Now that there is e-mail, people expect that a call will be more complicated.  Not about facts.  A fuller thing.  People expect it to take time – or else you wouldn’t have called.”

In the real world, the act of framing – the act of describing a situation, and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made -is itself a moral task.  It’s often the more task.  Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development.  In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.
– Kwame Anthony Appiah


Turkle begins her 2012 TED talk with this story:

Just a moment ago, my daughter Rebecca texted me for good luck. Her text said, “Mom, you will rock.” I love this. Getting that tex was like getting a hug. And now with her studying abroad, I’m grateful to be tethered to her through the Net.  Looking over recent text exchanges with my friends and family reliably puts me in a good mood. And so there you have it. I embody the central paradox. I’m a woman who loves getting texts who’s going to tell you that too many of them can be a problem. Networked, we are together, but with the lessened expectations of each other, we can feel more utterly alone.  There is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed, and only for the parts that we find useful, comforting or amusing.

She continues: I notice how often I am with colleagues who are elsewhere: a board meeting where members rebelled when asked to turn off their mobile devices; a faculty meeting where attendees did their e-mail until it was their turn to speak; a conference at which audience members set up Internet back channels in order to chat about speakers’ presentations during the presentations themselves.  “I never want to be far from my BlackBerry, ” a colleague told me.  “That is where my games are.  That is where my sites are.  Without it, I’m too anxious.”

* * * * *

The self shaped in a world of rapid response measures success by calls made, e-mails answered texts replied to, contacts reached.  This self is calibrated on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy.  But in the technology-induced pressure for volume and velocity, we confront a paradox.  We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted.  As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems.

Trey a forty-six-year-old lawyer with a large Boston firm, raises this issue explicitly.  On e-mail, he says, “I answer questions I can answer right away.  And people want me to answer them right away.  But it’s not only the speed.  The questions have changed to ones that I can answer right away.” Trey describes legal matters that call for time and nuance and says that “people don’t have patience for these now.  They send a e-mail, and they expect something back fast.  They are willing to forgo the nuance; really, the client wants to hear something now, and so I give the answers that can be sent back by return e-mail, or maybe answers that will take me a day, max.  I feel pressured to think in terms of bright lines.  It’s not the technology that does this, of course, but the technology sets expectations about speed.  The technology primes us for speed, and overwhelmed, we are happy to have it help us speed up.”

* * * * *

Tara, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer who juggles children, a job, and a new marriage, makes the point: “When you ask for a call, the expectation is that you have pumped it up a level.  People say to themselves: ‘It’s urgent or she would have sent me an e-mail.'” so Tara avoids the telephone.  She wants to meet with friends in person; e-mail is for setting up these meetings.  “That is what is most efficient,” she says.  But efficiency has its downside.  Business meetings have agendas, but friends have unscheduled needs.  In friendship, things can’t always wait. Tara know this; she feel guilty and she experiences a loss: “I’m at the point where I’m processing my friends as though they were items of inventory…or clients.”

* * * * *

I interview Sanjay, sixteen.  We will talk for an hour between two of his class periods.  At the beginning of our conversation, he takes his mobile phone out of his pocket and turns it off.  At the end of our conversation, he turns the phone back on.  He looks at me ruefully, almost embarrassed.  He has received over a hundred text messages as we were speaking.  Some are from his girlfriend who, he says, is having a meltdown.  Some are from a group of close friends trying to organize a small concert.  He feels a lot of pressure to reply and begins to pick up his books and laptop so he can find a quiet place to set himself to the task.  As he says good-bye, he adds, not speaking particularly to me but more to himself as an afterthought to the conversation we have just had, “I can’t imagine doing this when I get older.”  And then, more quietly, “How long do I have to continue doing this?

* * * * *

Sal, sixty-two, a widower, describes  when his wife became ill five years before, he dropped out of one world.  Now, a year after her death, he wakes up in another.  Recently Sal began to entertain at his home again.  At his first small dinner party, he tells, me “I invited a woman, about fifty, who works in Washington.  In the middle of a conversation about the Middle East, she takes out her BlackBerry.  She wasn’t speaking on it.  I wondered if she was checking her e-mail.  I thought see was being rude, so I asked her what she was doing.  She said that she was blogging the conversation.  She was blogging the conversation.”

* * * * *

An art critic with a book deadline took drastic measures: “I went away to a cabin.  And I left my cell phone in the car.  In the trunk.  My idea was that maybe I would check it once a day.  I kept walking out of the house to open the trunk and check the phone.  I felt like an addict, liked the people at work who huddle around the outdoor smoking places they keep on campus.  I kept going to that trunk.”   It is not unusual for people to estimate that when at work, but taken up by search, surfing, e-mail, photos, and Facebook, they put in double the amount of hours to accommodate the siren of the Web.

* * * *

When I first read how it is through our faces that we call each other up as human beings, I remember thinking I have always felt that way about the human voice.  But like many of those I study, I have been complicit with technology in removing many voices from my life.

I had plans for dinner with a colleague, Joyce.  On the day before we were to meet, my daughter got admitted to college.  I e-mailed Joyce that we would have much to celebrate.  She e-mailed back a note of congratulations.  She had been through the college admissions process with her children and understood my relief.  At dinner, Joyce said that she had thought of calling to congratulate me, but a call had seemed “intrusive.”  I admitted that I hadn’t called her to share my good news for the same reason.  Joyce and I both felt constrained by a new etiquette but were also content to follow it.  I feel more in control of my time if I’m not disturbed by calls,” Joyce admitted.

Both Joyce and I have gained something we are not happy about wanting.  License to feel together when alone, comforted by e-mails, excused from having to attend to people in real time.  We did not set out to avoid the voice but end up denying ourselves its pleasures. For the voice can only be experienced in real time, and both of us are so busy that we don’t feel we have it to spare.

* * * * *

Audrey feels lonely in her family.  She has an older brother in medical school and a second, younger brother, just two years old.  Her parents are divorced, and she lives half time with each of them.  Their homes are about a forty-five minute drive apart.  This means that Audrey spends a lot of time on the road.  “On the road,” she says.  “That’s daily life.”  She sees her phone as the glue that ties her life together.  Her mother calls her to pass on a message to her father.  Her father does the same.  “They call me to say, ‘Tell your mom this…Make sure you dad knows that.’  I use the cell to put it together.  My parents us me and my cell like instant messenger. I am their IM.”


Miguel, a high school senior, told Turkle it is hard for him to ask his father to put the BlackBerry away because he himself texts when he is with his father in the car.  “He has a son who texts, so why shouldn’t he?”  But when parents see their children checking their mobile devices and thus feel permission to use their own, the adults are discounting a crucial asymmetry.  The multitasking teenagers are just that, teenagers.  They want and need adult attention.  They are willing to admit that they are often relieved when a parent asks them to put away the phone and sit down to talk.  But for parents to make this request – and this no longer goes without saying – they have to put down their phones as well.  Sometimes it is children (often in alliance with their mothers) who find a way to insist that dinner be a time for talking – time away from the smartphone.  But habits of shared attention die hard.

1. Create sacred space for connection and conversation.  Protect a digital free zone in the kitchen, dining room, and car.  No emailing, cell phoning, texting, web surfing – only…talking with each other, or connecting with the real world by chopping vegetables or listening to NPR.

2. When talking on the phone, don’t do anything else.

3. Learn to tolerate the boring bits.  It is when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.  And when we pause, we notice the miraculous in the ordinary.

4. Break the automaticity of interrupting yourself: mute your computer so you don’t hear the signal of e-mail coming in.  (I’ve done this when writing, like this e-newsletter, and find I can concentrate for hours.

5. Shut down all devices at least 30 minutes before going to bed; give your nervous system time to re-enter the real world of your home before unplugging to sleep.

6. Practice using imagination to feel resourced and connected with people.  People have evoked memories of loved ones for millennia to help them feel supported and comforted in difficult times.

7. Start thinking of solitude as a good thing.   Carve out time for it.  Journal, meditate, daydream.  Rediscover the value of self-reflection and self-awareness that enlivens your interactions with others when you re-engage.

8.  Initiate a conversation among your family, friends and colleagues about any concerns raised for you by reading this e-newsletter.


Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, PhD. Basic Books, New York, 2011.

Bill Moyers’ PBS interview with Sherry Turkle on October 18, 2013 (podcast and/or transcript)

TED Talk with Sherry Turkle Posted April 2012.

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