The Third Option: Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”
I finally finished Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together on my last trip. I strongly recommend the book, especially for computer science ethics and professionalism classes.
Turkle looks at several technologies and considers what their impact on our daily lives are, with a particular emphasis on social robotics and on-line social media. She is trained as a psychoanalyst, so she looks at human impacts a bit differently than most computer scientists. She is concerned with what it means for us as humans to use robots to take care of our elderly, for children to play with toys that seem alive and thinking, and for all of us to interact increasingly through technologically-mediated forms (e.g., texting on phones, Facebook and Twitter and MySpace). Her insights are deep and varied. For example, she talks about the strains caused by ubiquitous communications technology on family life less in terms of the always-texting teens, and more in terms of the always-distracted parents.
It’s not an easy book to read. The book is filled with dozens of case studies, which she uses to compare and contrast throughout the book to make her points. It’s like a non-fiction Russian novel: Dozens of characters, which are telling stories about themselves, who are being played off one another. I loved Doestoevsky’s The Idiot, but it took me almost a year to finish it, and I considered it an accomplishment to make it all the way through. Alone Together has some of that quality.
Most people with whom I’ve spoken who have finished the book talk about its pervasive negative attitude. Turkle is much more critical of the technology in this book than she was in The Second Self or Life on the Screen. I do agree with that assessment — Turkle is worried, and that worry comes across strongly. She’s a realist, though. She says that we can’t call our relationship to communications technology an “addiction,” because that implies something that you might remove from your life. You can be addicted to cigarettes, because you can (and should) get them out of your life. Psychoanalysts don’t call a flawed relationship with food an “addiction,” because you can’t remove food from your life. Similarly, she says that nobody is going to get rid of communications technology, once it’s available. We can, instead, re-think how we relate to it.
What I find most powerful about the book is where she sets up intriguing and insightful options — and that’s where the book becomes a must-read for future computing professionals, those who might one day design technology. She tells the story of a fifth grade class who considers the questions, “Do you want your parents and grandparents cared for by the robots, or would you rather they not be cared for at all? Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?” One child in the class breaks away from the “for or against” question to ask, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” In a similar situation in an MIT seminar, Turkle relates how a student in her class reacted to a story about robots who can flip over a bed-ridden patient to avoid bed sores. The woman in Turkle’s class had just recently lost her mother, and she recoiled from the contrast between an autonomous machine or a neglected patient.
She wanted to have a conversation about how she might have used technology as prosthesis. Had her arms been made stronger, she might have been able to lift her mother when she was ill. She would have welcomed such help. It might have made it possible for her to keep her mother at home during her last weeks.
That’s the kind of “third option” that Alone Together is good at raising. It’s a way of thinking that values the human element and is important to consider for technology designers.
More directly related to past themes in this blog, Sherry Turkle’s book speaks to us who are considering the role of the computer in education. The options should not be solely “students with no support, or a robot teacher.” There are third options. I’m still fond of the third option to “Beat the book, not the teacher.” Think how much better a weak teacher might be with a book that helped support the teacher and the students. Think how much better the students’ experience might be with computing technology available in collaboration with a caring, human teacher. In general, Turkle encourages us to think about the value for the human and how technology can enhance, not limit or replace, our valuable interactions with humans.