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Your Friends Are Not an App

Technology can undermine selfless, honest relationships—but it doesn't have to.
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Waiting in line, stuck in traffic, aboard the subway: at moments such as these, we pull out our phones. We text, check Facebook, scroll through pictures on Instagram, post something on Twitter. It’s not uncommon to see a couple sitting across from each other at a restaurant, engrossed in their phones.

New technology has in many ways served as a boon to connection. All of a sudden, we can communicate with loved ones on the other side of the country—or on the other side of the world. We have an instantaneous method for discovering important life news and alerting one another to personal emergencies. Our phones and social media accounts act like leashes, keeping us tethered to each other at all times.

But are we truly caring for and understanding one another through these devices? Are these connections—mediated and interposed as they are through technology—really leading to full and flourishing human relationships?

This is the question considered by Sherry Turkle—a psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT—in Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle began studying technology’s effects on society back in the 1980s, when she wrote her first book considering the computer’s impact on the self. Since then she has written three books on the subject, including 2011’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Why revisit the subject again only four years later? Turkle argues that her observations in Alone Together have only been confirmed in recent years, as social media have built an increasingly important place in the average person’s life. Beyond that, she believes we are finally beginning to see a bit of protest and backlash against the technological craze. In Alone Together, she now writes, “I knew I was describing complications that most people did not want to see.” And today “we are ready to reconsider the too-simple enthusiasm of ‘the more connected we are, the better off we are.’”

Because of our increasing reliance on technology, we have descended from conversation “to the efficiencies of mere connection,” Turkle argues. Technology promises we will be always heard, never alone, and never bored, yet the informal and virtual nature of its connections has encouraged looser familial and romantic bonds. Many young people struggle to conduct interviews, discuss their emotions, or even spend time with their friends without the assistance of technology.  

Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that all of life should be set around three “chairs”: one for solitude and contemplation; two for friendship, which we share with kith and kin; and three for society. Turkle believes our relationship with these three chairs has been drastically reshaped by technology. It should be obvious that our ability to enjoy one chair—solitude—has been deeply inhibited, if not often demolished, by our new online lives. For many, it is nearly impossible to sit alone or wait patiently in line without turning to the ever-present phone. There’s a nagging feeling that comes over us in such moments of pause, an almost frenzied desire not to be without entertainment or distraction.

Some argue that we are hiding, on such occasions, from our fears and uncertainties about life: from the sorts of deep thoughts that creep up on us when we are alone. Others believe that we have developed a deep repugnance to boredom—one that is mentally debilitating. Turkle contends that we need moments of solitude in order to develop emotionally, mentally, and relationally: solitude allows us to daydream, discover new ideas, and build a true sense of self based on self-knowledge rather than on the opinions of others. When social media such as Facebook become our go-to in moments of quiet, “we risk building a false self,” while also damaging our creative capabilities.

Turkle considers friendship—Thoreau’s two chairs—in two parts. She first considers ways in which social media and smartphones have damaged our familial relationships, and her thoughts are particularly poignant when discussing the modern family’s inability to negotiate conflict or spend meaningful time together. There’s been an abdication of conversation on both sides in today’s family: while parents complain that their children are addicted to technology and out of touch, children now claim that they can’t pull their parents away from their own smartphones. We often see technological obsession as a young man’s pursuit, but it’s an addiction all generations are susceptible to.

Even though many young people Turkle talks to have a hard time envisioning life without modern communications technology, they’re also quick to admit that something is wrong with their relationships. They want to communicate better with their loved ones but feel they’ve lost both the means and opportunity to do so. The phone and computer, while prompting greater connection across the nation and globe, have failed to foster relationships between people at the most basic and important level: within the home.

Solving this problem will require intentionality, a conscious choice to put away our devices when we are together and carve out precious time for conversation. Turkle suggests designating “sacred spaces” in the home and in relationships: appointing places and times in which technology is banned. This can be a difficult decision for parents to make—indeed, it requires as much from them as it does from their children—but Turkle believes it is necessary to foster lasting relationships between family members.

Turkle’s discussion of the social and romantic lives of young people is saddening, even if what she reports is not altogether surprising. Many young adults find that, even when spending one-on-one time with their peers, their attention is constantly bombarded by the “other”: other friends, other places one could be, other potential partners one could be dating. One girl notes that following a sexual encounter with a young man she liked, she found herself checking the hookup site Tinder while he was in the bathroom. Another girl named Kati tells Turkle that “wherever she and her friends are, they strategize about where they could be. With so much choice, says Kati, it becomes harder to choose … and nothing feels like the right choice. Nothing Kati and her friends decide seems to measure up to their fantasy of what they might have done.”

Beyond the temporality and discontent this can develop among friends, technology’s mediating nature can also instill a sense of separation between its users, shielding them from vulnerability and the rawness of physical connection. The resulting interactions can have deleterious consequences. When she turns her attention to work and school—Thoreau’s three chairs—Turkle finds that much of the cyber-bullying we’re seeing today is a result of this technological connectivity. One schoolteacher told Turkle she believes “children are treating other children as ‘apps,’ as means to an end.” They see their social and romantic interactions through a utilitarian lens, and they aren’t as afraid to hurt each other because they often can’t see the immediate results of their words.

In the workplace, technology has created a barrier to interactions that formerly fostered relationships between employees, clients, and bosses. New hires, some executives complain, are unwilling to make client phone calls or to interact with their fellow employees. They sit at their desks with their headphones on and argue that this insulation actually enables them to work more effectively. But just as in personal relationships, this inability to connect meaningfully in real time begins to weigh on workplace interactions.

Some may wonder whether the progressions we’re seeing in the smartphone and Internet age are any different from those we saw at the dawn of the television age. Older generations complained then, too, of the changes such media would bring and the dangers they posed for youngsters. Such protests were, and often still are, dismissed as Luddite or old-fashioned. The arguments Turkle presents might seem to have a similarly backwards air to them.

thisarticleappearsBut Turkle’s book shows that while the changes we see may not be unprecedented in kind or quality, they are unusual in scope and depth. It’s true that the television changed the way people interacted in the neighborhoods and in the home: as Wendell Berry has pointed out, the television shifted our social lives from the front porch into the living room, prompting us to greater solitude and separation. Today’s technology often fosters the same individualism, but it is more consistently present. Whereas the television inhabits a fixed and limited space, the Internet and smartphone are almost continually present in our lives. Whether at work or at home—even in the car, airplane, bus, or train—the digital world is there, beckoning to us.

While we should not neglect the goods that technology can provide, we should not embrace them without a thought to the possible consequences, either. With each stage of technological development, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves more from the physical space we inhabit. We’re encouraged to live in a virtual reality in which we can distance ourselves from both the blessings and curses of real presence. Yet technology is at its best when it facilitates instead of replaces physical interaction.

The challenges we face in the digital age have grown in scale, prompting new sorts of addiction and disconnection, but many of the underlying problems that Turkle cites are ones we have always struggled with: the fear of being alone, discontent with our lot in life, the desire to be ever entertained, reluctance to commit or be vulnerable. A human relationship has always required virtues such as gratitude, selflessness, diligence, honesty. Technology prompts an ease of interaction that can undermine such virtues, but it doesn’t have to. We must exercise caution and understand that even the most convenient technology requires limits and prudence. Turkle’s book contributes to a discussion that, while as old as human nature, must continue to resurface as our new contraptions, and new ways of spending time, threaten to shift our perception of old truths and virtues.

Gracy Olmstead is TAC’s senior writer.



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