MIT Communications Forum: A Conversation with Sherry Turkle

7:00 PM

David Thorburn, MIT Professor of Literature, MacVicar Faculty Fellow; Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauz, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

Description: Please don't confuse Sherry Turkle with a latter-day Luddite; she knows from email and Twitter, and appreciates the benefits of digital technology. What she worries about are people who are inseparable from their devices, who can't enjoy, as she does, "a solitary walk across the dunes."

In conversation with David Thorburn, she describes her evolving appraisal of the impact of digital technology, beginning with her arrival at MIT, a place she has "always felt a little bit not at home." Teaching Freud to computer science students in the 1970s, Turkle realized how differently "a mind steeped in computers" could perceive the world. With MIT support, she began observing and interviewing technology users, especially children, engaging in the kind of specialized ethnography associated with among others, the sociologist David Riesman, writer of the classic study, The Lonely Crowd. Turkle's latest book, Alone Together, whose title explicitly connects her thinking to Riesman's, is the culmination of 15 years of research, and raises some troubling issues about the paradoxically anti-social effects of connecting to the world with sophisticated digital technologies.

Turkle, who has chronicled the increasing portability and pervasiveness of computers and communications technology, believes children may no longer be learning "how to be alone." They panic at the prospect of disconnecting from their mobile devices, as if being out of touch erases their very existence: "I share therefore I am." Turkle detects in her interview subjects an "almost instinctive" fear of solitude, which she believes is dangerous, since being alone "is a good thing," a path to creativity and maturity. Loneliness, she says, "is when you fail to reach that state."

More and more, Turkle sees a darker side to mobile connectivity, with people plugged in at funerals, dinner tables, and birthday parties. She thinks "in terms of technological affordances and human vulnerability." Sociable robots capable of simulating human emotion and cognition pose a serious threat, believes Turkle, especially as they 'try out' for roles as nannies, elder caretakers, and teachers. She worries that we may come "to expect more from technology and less from each other." Social networks like Facebook whittle away at privacy, leaving not just individuals but our entire democracy open to abuse and manipulation.

In spite of an expanding "list of things that make me anxious," Turkle finds cause for optimism: people exhausted by incessant texting or having to "perform" on Facebook reveal "a sense that things have gone amiss." She describes how, at the end of a one"hour interview, an 18-year-old turned on his mobile phone and reported receiving 100 text messages. He remarked, "How long do I have to keep doing this?" Turkle also speculates that the corporate community must be struggling to maintain productivity in the face of constant connectivity. In the end, says Turkle, there will be a "convergence of many forces where we're going to get the pushback, and I want to be part of that convergence."

About the Speaker(s): Sherry Turkle is engaged in active study of robots, digital pets, and simulated creatures, particularly those designed for children and the elderly as well as in a study of mobile cellular technologies. She is the author most recently of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011). Other books include Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution; Falling For Science: Objects in Mind; and The Inner History of Devices.

Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum (From the MIT World collection)


MIT Communications Forum