Technology lowers our expectations of others, Turkle says



Rebecca Myers | Staff Writer

“It doesn’t just change what we do, it changes who we are.”

Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology initiative on Technology and Self, will kick off Week Six’s theme of “Digital Identity” at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater by addressing how technological devices have indelibly changed public culture.

Turkle said the initial idea of hand-held devices such as cellphones was that they would transform how people talk to and get in touch with one another. But that technology has also changed the nature of relationships: how we relate to our children, the quality and nature of conversation, how we fall in love.

“So I think that we have all been a bit taken aback by the profundity, the depth, the kind of changes that these little devices that we carry around have made in our lives,” Turkle said. “I call them intimate machines in the sense that they’ve touched us so deeply.”

Founded by Turkle in 2001, the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self focuses on research about the subjectivity of technology and promoting discussion about its social and psychological aspects.

As Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, Turkle teaches classes about science and technology and “provocative objects” — how technological objects enter into people’s ways of thinking, she said.

She has a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University.

In her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle writes about temptation.

She said technology captivates many people because they feel others do not listen to them. Studying sociable robotics, she said people are almost willing to let machines be their friends.

“A lot of people are excited about the day that we talk to our phones,” Turkle said. “A lot of these people are excited that someday Siri — the digital assistant on Apple’s iPhone — might someday be more like a true companion: one that will really listen to them.”

Alone Together also discusses vulnerability to, and the seductive nature of, social media, which leads to people having lower expectations of one another.

“We are very tempted to have relationships with each other that are lesser in some ways than the relationships that we used to have when we were with each other in direct conversation, or talking face to face, or even talking on the telephone — that we would rather text than talk,” she said.

As it may seem easier just to send a text message to someone, she said, conversation is changing in both business and personal settings.

“Sometimes we’re so busy communicating with each other that we don’t have time to really talk to each other about the things that matter,” Turkle said.

A solution to understanding one another and confronting feelings is to step back and acknowledge the patterns that are forming around technology use.

“A lot of these things we’re doing, but we’re not really thinking,” she said. “The technology is so shiny and bright and very tempting to just pick it up and use it and avoid — conversation is hard.”

“Digital immigrants,” or older generations who have adapted to technology rather than growing up in the digital age, are also emulating their children’s technology habits, she said.

“One of the things that has greatly surprised me in my own research is that parents are texting at the breakfast table,” Turkle said. “It’s not just their teenage children.”

But the way to return to more engaged relationships may be with the digital agers themselves.

“I see, in fact, more promise sometimes from members of a younger generation who grew up with parents who were taken by it, who are now saying, ‘I don’t want this for my kids,’” Turkle said.

The end of Alone Together is about what Turkle sees as fundamental for the future.

“It calls for a set of necessary conversations that we need to have about technology and contemporary life,” she said. “And Chautauqua’s one of the great places to start conversations.”