G Force

Room for online optimism

(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Fifteen years ago, MIT professor Sherry Turkle appeared on the cover of Wired magazine with the evocative headline “Sex, Lies, and Avatars.’’ She was heralded as a cyberspace explorer by the magazine, and computer enthusiasts rallied behind her book “Life on the Screen’’ as the sociologist explained how assuming different online personalities could sometimes be therapeutic. She was the poster girl for our 1990s life online.

Cut to 2011. In her latest book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,’’ Turkle talks about how constant texting, IM-ing, e-mailing, tweeting, and Facebook updating may give the appearance that we are more connected, but how in reality these technologies are isolating us from one another.

On a chilly afternoon in her Back Bay home, Turkle explained that “Alone Together’’ is not a rallying cry to turn off phones and shut off computers. But it is intended to start a conversation about how technology is shaping our lives.

Q. “Alone Together’’ is a pretty sobering book. You interview hundreds of people who have become absorbed by technology. But you’re saying that this isn’t a book that’s telling people to unplug.

A. It’s really a book that’s intended to start a conversation. I’m grateful that the book is sparking controversy. I’m grateful that the book is a big part of the conversation. There’s a perception that I don’t like technology anymore. It’s as if technology and I were dating, and now I’ve spurned him. That’s a very dangerous habit of mind. We’re not supposed to like or dislike technology. We’re supposed to make it work for us according to our human values. That’s the message of my book. I didn’t spend my time writing this book so you could figure out if I like technology or not. That is irrelevant. The question is, are you using this technology in a way that serves your purpose? We’re partners with technology. We have to make it work for us. We’re not giving it up, it’s not going away.

Q. But do you think it has gotten to the point where it’s overtaking our lives?

A. The most poignant interviews I did were with parents who said that they see the little red light on the BlackBerry, and they know that they shouldn’t look because they’re in the car with their kids and they’re going 65 miles per hour, and they check the message anyway. They know they’re endangering their lives and the lives of their children, and they check the message anyway.

Q. In some cases, it sounds as if we’re addicted to these technologies. It’s gotten to the point where people are falling into fountains because they’re so engrossed in texting.

A. I think we need to get rid of the notion of computer addiction. It’s a popular metaphor, and it’s an inaccurate metaphor. It’s not something that you can completely get rid of. You can’t get a job if you don’t have e-mail. You can’t be in school and get your assignments without a computer. Essentially you can’t apply to college. All this addiction talk just makes people feel hopeless. You have to learn to live with this in a way that’s healthy for you. Every new technology presents us with the challenge of looking at what our values are.

Q. One of the things that surprised me most in the book was that teenagers were complaining about their parents texting too much, and not the other way around.

A. I was expecting that this was going to be a story about the texting teenagers and the loving parents who can’t reach them. And instead it was about teenagers complaining about their parents. Some people have said, “I don’t understand why she ends the book on this cautiously optimistic note after telling me these depressing stories.’’ The reason I’m cautiously optimistic is that these parents realize that it’s not working. The mother who’s pushing her kid on the swing with one hand and texting with the other, she’s not happy. The father who half pays attention during his son’s game because he’s busy texting, he’s not happy. We’ve gotten ourselves to a place where we’re not happy, and when people aren’t happy, they usually do something about it.

Q. You say that we’re more isolated, but doesn’t something like Facebook help us stay better connected?

A. I was asked to comment on a study that found that Facebook makes us more sociable. This is what I mean in terms of technology starting to define what we can do and not do. They’re saying Facebook makes us more sociable because we share more photographs, we share more websites and links. I say we’re starting to define sociability in terms of what Facebook allows us to do. I love sharing photographs and websites, I’m for all of these things. I’m for Facebook. But to say that this is sociability? We begin to define things in terms of what technology enables and technology allows. We’re defining downward. It ends up reduced. Thumbs up or thumbs down on a website is not a conversation. The danger is you get into a habit of mind where politics means giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a website. The world is a much more complex place.


Interview was edited and condensed. Christopher Muther can be reached at

Sherry Turkle
MIT professor whose latest book is “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.’’