By Anne Collier
“We want to customize our lives…,” “It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news…,” “We seem willing to dispense with [other] people altogether….” All these dire, dour, disrespectful pronouncements about this undifferentiated mass called “we” from highly respected psychologist Sherry Turkle at MIT in the New York Times. Where is her acknowledgment that the way we use all the devices, media, and digital services she refers to is both highly individual and highly adaptive, that we have only just begun to mold digital technology to our humanity? The “we” she keeps referring to is changing, individually and together, even as humanity adapts to one of history’s most dramatic media shifts. The pronouncement I struggle with most in her essay is the one that follows the truth that “human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding”: She says “we have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology.” I disagree. It can’t be done. Technology doesn’t clean up human relationships, and I don’t think this brilliant psychologist would respond to me by saying that all social media users harbor such an illusion.
Turkle quotes a high school sophomore as saying he wished he “could talk to an artificial intelligence program instead of his dad about dating.” She’s suggesting he prefers the technology’s to his dad’s intelligence, but I wish I could ask her if she’s considered the possibility that this is a teenager who’s not finding his dad very helpful where dating’s concerned! I think there’s at least a 50% chance that’s as true as what Turkle implies. It’s highly possible that this one boy’s wish says absolutely nothing about technology and a whole lot about either his dad or the quality rather than the tools of their communication.
Turkle says that, “over time, we stop caring.” I’m no psychologist, but I disagree with that too. I see all kinds of evidence, including in the research, that “we” are using social media as much to communicate how much we care about each other as to illustrate that we don’t. And many of us are demonstrating the latter when we divide our attention between someone present and a text message from someone not present. Indignation often comes from the person present, overtly expressed or not, and so does guilt on our part, often, also demonstrating that we know better than to show that we’re not attentive – unless everybody present is in tacit agreement that this divided attention is acceptable in this situation. Haven’t you been in both situations? Haven’t you felt that guilt – or told a child he or she should, or made a rule like “phones are off during a family meal” or similar situations? This is social norms development in process. If I may make a generalization, I’ll say that we’ll never stop needing deep connection. But we are gaining many more depth levels to choose from – from a long, deep phone conversation or Skype videochat to fun catching up in a social game to a quick texting conversation about where and when to meet up – and other depth levels!
Won’t stop caring, need a little context
In a talk at the South by Southwest Interactive conference last month, social media researcher danah boyd quoted technology historian Melvin Kranzberg as saying, “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” He explained that technology’s use is highly contextual. He wrote, for example, that the technological development called DDT was banned in this country, where it was found to do more harm than good, while its use was widely continued in India, where it saved hundreds of thousands of lives a year from malaria. I believe we are no less caring as a race (how to measure this?!) than before texting and social networking. Far from it, and these technologies allow us to show it more, if we choose to use them in that way – and we know from the research that many of us do. I agree with Turkle that the Internet and social media are in their “toddler days” (see this), and so I think it’s way too early to make pronouncements about how they’re somehow diminishing our humanity or trivializing our connections. So I’ll make a pronouncement of my own: You have to factor in both individuality and context before you decide what our technology’s doing to us, and you have to take the “toddler days” argument to its logical conclusion: that we’ve only just begun to work out the social norms and practices of our brand-new social media.
I’m a “partisan for conversation” too, and I like some of the ideas Turkle shares at the end of her essay for fostering it. But I just don’t buy the arguments that “over time, we stop caring” and conversation’s going away. We will always need to go deep. Technology’s fast-moving development is giving us all a lot of new depth levels to choose from as well as added distractions. So maybe we ultimately agree that, amid the flood of change, we need to be – and help our children be – mindful about how to cope with the flood, rather than constantly lament it, thinking together about how best to fulfill our deep human need for connection. And we will figure it out as a human race, in our different contexts and cultures, if only because we have to.