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The Internet's Not Grown Up: An Interview with Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle has spent an inordinate amount of time looking at people looking at screens. Not just looking at screens, but also interacting with them, talking to them, designing and making with them. People who care for them, and can’t seem to get...

by ALEX PASTERNACK
May 3 2012, 3:10pm

Sherry Turkle has spent an inordinate amount of time looking at people looking at screens. Not just looking at screens, but also interacting with them, talking to them, designing and making with them. People who care for them, and can't seem to get enough of them.

In her quest to chart the emotional connections we have with the objects around us, Turkle's had a special vantage point too: as a doctor in sociology and personality psychology and a licensed clinical psychologist, she's spent much of her academic life at MIT, that bastion of human-computer interaction, where she founded the Initiative on Technology and Self.

Her most recent book is Alone Together, an anxious and fascinating examination of how technology is messing with our identities and our relationships. A recent op-ed in the Times picked up on the theme: " My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it's hard, but it can be done."

After a few emails, I reached her by phone in Cambridge as she was finishing part of her book tour to ask her some questions about what we've lost to the screen, what we're losing, and how we can get it back. You might want to print this one out.

How does this book relate to your previous writing about technology? And what's the response been like?

I think it has confused people a little. I think people want to see people as pro-technology or anti-technology, and I think that I have been perceived as a pro-technology writer and I am very intrigued and interested in technology. But this book says: hey, lets look at where technology has taken us in terms of where it has taken us to behaviors and ways of being with each other that are to me not so comfortable, and I think that's kind of thrown people for a loop. It's as though technology and I were dating and I cheated on him.

I think it's a dangerous position for people to have because the point is not whether I like or don't like technology. The point is, how we can use technology to live the best life possible, which is what I tried to make the book about. The point is to have alerted people's attentions to some things that we need to be thinking about, not whether I like technology. It's just not the right question. I find it's a question that can really get us into trouble because it's not where we need to be thinking.

Photographs by Peter DaSilva and Byron Smith, for The New York Times.

Well, how would you describe the way that you think?

It was kind of like "She was on the cover of Wired magazine… how dare she." You know, "she said technology was the way to explore identity. That's twisted. What's going on here?" And you know, it seems to me that I had all that pro-technology stuff going. There must be a good reason why I've had some second thoughts, and what are they? The book is actually pro-technology and I love this stuff. I am just saying that when I see people texting at funerals and when I see people texting at prayer services, when mothers are telling me that they are in the car with three kids in the back and they are driving at sixty miles an hour and they're not happy because they are endangering their children… these are not happy people. I hear people saying it's time to make the corrections. We haven't gotten ourselves into a good space.

But this is a fabulous technology. I just went to my 5th grade reunion. Let me tell you: because of Facebook, the 5th grade class of P.S. 216 in Brooklyn does not get together without Facebook. I mean that's just not a community that can pull that together without Facebook.

What's wrong with how we think or talk about technology?

I don't think we have a sophisticated understanding. I think that we've kind of gadgetized it and we don't have a sophistication of understanding of how we've gadgetized it. We've been told that you need to be for or against it. We haven't developed an understanding that some people have given us, a version where technology has wants. I think that we have a variety of story lines going where we haven't really owned it. We've fallen in love with the gadgets.

I have a favorite line in the book, if an author is allowed to have a favorite line out of all those many lines: "Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up." And by that I mean, we were babies when this began to be developed. We've all grown up, and so it's like a fallacy, it's like a distortion.

We somehow think that this is how it is. This is its grown up age and it's not. We are at the very beginning. Just because you have a Blackberry now and a little red light goes off and you interrupt your conversation with someone you know because a stranger is calling. That's not necessarily going to be how it has to be. It's very early days and that's going to seem very weird to us in a few years.

Have you seen us humans taking new approaches to deal with this weird life?

In the book I talk about sacred spaces. I don't think that will become everyone's language, but I think that we are going to get a sense of "How can we make some places where we get this right"? Where we have a more sensible attitude towards how we want to manage this?" I think it will begin with families because that's where parents can say to kids: "Hello, three year old. We don't do this at the dinner table." And it will be begin in the car, where parents will not be texting. And it will begin at the playground, where mothers will no longer push the kid with one hand and check their email with their other hand. We are going to start to say, "hold on, this just isn't making a whole lot of sense."

The things that Facebook is designed to do, there is just nothing else that can do that. It's fantastic. But we are sort of designing down the sociability of the things Facebook can do. I mean, I love sharing photographs but that isn't a social life, and there are other kinds of sociability. Some of the reviews of my book have been like, "Doesn't she know that Facebook increases social capital?"

Like, sharing photographs is one way of increasing social capital, but so is having a conversation. It's like a use of the word "community" to talk about virtual community. Or the use of "affect" to talk about the affect of computing, or the use of "intelligence" in order to talk about artificial intelligence. I mean we give away these words. But these words mean a lot more. So, I think that we are just going to start to reclaim some of these words, which are very important words for all of us.

You have a Blackberry now and a little red light goes off and you interrupt your conversation with someone you know because a stranger is calling. That's not necessarily going to be how it has to be. It's very early days and that's going to seem very weird to us in a few years.
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Words like "friend" and "like" too. So if the responsibility lies with families, what role do you see the Internet companies themselves playing?

Well Mark Zuckerberg says, "privacy is no longer a relevant social norm." I rarely Tweet, I am not a big Tweeter, but I Tweeted. I said, "Well, OK, maybe privacy isn't convenient for the social network, but what is democracy without privacy? What is intimacy without privacy?"

Did you get any responses?

No. Some people re-tweeted. You know, what's to respond? My aspiration for writing this book is to start a conversation. Start many conversations – well not start because that would be presumptuous, but to be a part of many conversations. But what kind of conversations can happen around these questions? I mean, that's my question about the corporate life. I mean, from a corporate point of view he's not interested.

I am very interested in intimacy and democracy. From the point of view of intimacy and democracy, I think privacy is a very relevant social norm and for those of us who are not just interested in what's convenient for corporations, we need to really be very active and nurturing of conversations. That's what I'm saying.

Sure. Well it seems like the one problem for all of us is having the conversation itself in the place where it's hardest to have it. It seems like we have more opportunity for conversations, we have more opportunity to consume news, ideas, information, to connect with people, to share stuff, and to interact with our friends, whatever that means. But within this context of the web, how do we get these important conversations started?

Well I'm hopeful. I believe that writing matters, and radio matters, and blogging matters, and tweeting matters. I mean, I think that people's imaginations are sparked by people raising issues. Stephen Colbert asked me a great question and it wasn't a good time to answer it. I started to and then backed off. I thought, "Oh my god, this is going to be so heavy." But it was great that he asked it and ever since I have been trying to answer it.

He asked, "What's the difference between having a conversation with you and getting it in little sips? In little tweets, in little bits, in little sips, a little tweet there, a little Facebook status there. What do I need to get in a whole meeting or a whole conversation or a whole meeting you? Why can't I just get it in little bits?"

Now that's a great question. What does it mean to have someone's full attention? Will you really give somebody the full blast of you in person, and what's the difference between that and learning about me through little status updates?

I think there's a big difference when we are physically with each other. Or even the fact that you're talking to me on the phone, and you hear that finally, after two weeks of being on tour, I've basically imploded. I have a cough, I have completely lost it. I am no longer even pretending to be pulled together. I am sitting here with fifteen open boxes of Kleenex, and Robitussin and tea and herbal supplements.

We kind of want to go with our comparative advantage over the robots.
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There's a way that we've become sort of trustworthy of each other. That we recognize each other, that something about each other comes across. That when we finally hear each other or meet each other or… You know it's why I don't do my field work online or on the phone. It's like, I wanna see.

Like have you ever just talked to a sleazebag and just thought, "Oh my god, there isn't a single solitary authentic thing coming out of this person's mouth"? And I've been interviewed where I've said, "who is this person?" I mean we're animals, we sense something, we're intuitive. That's the beauty of it. That's the point! I mean hey, we kind of want to go with our comparative advantage over the robots.

It's such a wonderful question he asked, and he asked it in the guise of being a comedian, and it wasn't the time to get into it, but I guess I am saying that in the cultural space, the fact that that now this is a serious question is very, very significant. Because I think a lot of people didn't hear that as a comedian's question. I think a lot of people heard that as a serious question. Why should we care? And ever since then I have been trying to answer that question even if I didn't have the courage to try and answer it. I didn't believe I could do it justice.

Maybe it's sort of related to a general problem when living in a hyper-mediated place, which is that you only had 30 seconds to respond.

I mean when you're with Stephen Colbert and he's doing his schtick… You sense that he's playing. That's what makes people comfortable with him. Because he's so good natured, there's something so guileless about him. He's not Bill O'Reilly. You're not with an angry son of a bitch.

Japanese senior citizens with NARO, a pet robot

At the end of the day the technologies we use are created by us. How do you approach the notion that these technologies, as Kevin Kelly argues "want" something and that we should take notice.

Well Kevin and I are best friends. We have a real disagreement. He is interested in what technology wants and I'm like, "what do I want?" In a nutshell. It is convenient for Facebook to have no privacy. Because it will allow Facebook to roam more freely. Is that good for democracy? Is that good for intimacy?

What do you want from Facebook? What would you like to see happen with a site like that, or with social networking in general?

Great question. I would like Mark Zuckerberg to say, "I've been reading Turkle, for example, on intimacy and privacy, on democracy and privacy. And reading others too. My goal is to respect the power of social networking and to make sure it respects the delicate ecology of our most precious social norms. I have a lot of confidence in Facebook. We can make a lot of money with very tight privacy restrictions. And we can make a lot of money if we leave some money on the table."

What kind of gadgets do you use?

Everything. Everything. Love it.

Do you have an iPhone?

Yup!

Do you have a recent favorite piece of technology, virtual or physical, that helps to achieve the kind of thinking or feeling that you hope to promote?

Technology doesn't give you a feeling. What you do with it gives you a feeling. Writing on Microsoft Word gives me a good feeling. I think of MS Word as the ideal writing tool. I write by editing. So that is what word processing lets me do.

You talk at the end of the book about the importance of controlling your tech rather than letting it control you. What sort of rules do you have around your gadgets?

No meals, and I like to do my email in blocks. In other words, my rule is, I love email, I love staying in touch when I am doing my email. It can't be interrupting me every moment of my day. Essentially I don't have it on my phone. I like to sit down and do my email. Then I get up and I have my day, then I check it again in the evening. I guess I am willing to do my email several times a day. I love my email, and I embrace this. But what I am not willing to do is have my day punctuated by interruption because I need to think, I need to be with my students, I need to be with my friends, I need to be with my colleagues, I need to be working. I can't have it punctuated.

A talk by Sherry Turkle from TED 2012.
Lead photo: Erik Jacobs

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