At the repeated suggestion of a friend, I picked up a copy of Sherry Turkle’s latest book. Although Alone, Together is for adults, I felt I should share my reaction to her research with the parents who rely on Reading Matters for advice about children’s literature.
Turkle spent years interviewing a variety of people from young children to engineers. She organized her findings into two sections: one on robotics and the second on social media. Presented primarily as anecdotes, her book describes how individuals react to a wide range of technology: robotic toys, internet games, sophisticated cell phones, to name a few.
While it is impossible to describe in detail her experiences or conclusions, one recurring theme in her book is a loss of a sense of intimacy among users of technology. Those who participated in studies involving robot companions seemed to become attached to these machines as if they were human. Many subjects implied that robotic friends would be more reliable, more loyal – less demanding. Turkle wonders if we are lowering our expectations in relationships. I wonder if, as a society, we have grown accustomed to treating people as objects, and therefore a robot is the next logical progression.
Parents will probably find Part Two on social media more relevant. Turkle spent hours interviewing young adults who are “tethered” to their devices. They all seem to resent the cell phones on which they have come to depend. Devices interfere with family life and parent-child relations. Avatars and Facebook pages force users to lead a double life: one online, one off. Nearly all those interviewed take for granted that they have forgone their privacy and that the government is spying on them.
Turkle ends her book on a positive note, however. Many of the young people she interviewed demonstrated a healthy perspective on the matter. Small children, appalled at the notion that robots would care for their grandparents asked, “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” High school and college students expressed a desire to live life without hundreds, indeed thousands of text messages a day. Some even suggested that when they want to have a real conversation, they simply find a pay phone. Turkle astutely comments that we still have the ability to learn how to use technology without being controlled by it. As a parent, I felt affirmed in my efforts to regulate its use in my own home.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.