Isolation, Narcissism, and Robots

As I read Sherry Turkle’s introduction to Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the thing that struck me the most was the manner in which people discussed interacting with machines. Turkle argues that people have become so used to communicating with and via machines, that they have become desensitized to the lack of authenticity inherent in those communications. This was evident in a serious debate about the merits of having sexual and romantic relationships with robots, something previously only seen in science fiction movies. I agree with Turkle that having a true relationship with a robot is impossible, because the machines do not have emotions or experiences to share, and cannot love a person back. For some, however, this seems to not be a problem. Turkle mentions a thirty-year-old man who says he would prefer having a robot companion to human friends, because the humans are too complicated, and when he is done interacting the robot he can just leave. To me, this reflects a sense of narcissism, because this man is seeking to simply unload and engage in one-way communication. A relationship, be it a friendship or even a working relationship between coworkers, involves give and take

Robot companions are not only for the self-centered, though, but also for those who have been hurt and feel isolated from other humans. The simulation of affection provided by the robots allows these people to feel connected to something. However, it seems to me as though having these companion robots could become a crutch, preventing people from endeavoring to fix their damaged relationships, and giving them excuses for becoming shut-ins and continuing their isolation.

Along these lines, social media and other forms of communication which have become prevalent in the last twenty years (e-mail, text messages) have diminished the quality of our connections with other people. Narcissism is again present in social media, in which users can share every detail of their lives (many mundane) and every opinion, without any real connection or feedback. If you don’t like someone’s comment on your Facebook status, after all, you can just delete it, and typing a story into a text box is much different from telling your friends a tale in person. Electronic messages, whether SMS or IM, also provide a greater distance between us and our friends than talking on the phone or face-to-face. The smart phones themselves have become a distraction from personal, real life interactions. I know I am guilty of using my iPhone during dinner, or stopping in the middle of a conversation to read a text message I just received. As Turkle notes, for many people checking their phones has become a compulsion, and they become agitated when separated from their device.

Despite this, I believe that technology does have the ability to connect people, especially when separated across great distances. The important thing, though, is not to let it impede real, authentic communication and connections.


About Karlin

Karlin is a graduate of the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, with a degree in Marketing. He wrote his thesis on marketing movies using digital media. Television, and film aficionado, lifelong Portland Trail Blazers fan, recovering comic book nerd.
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One Response to Isolation, Narcissism, and Robots

  1. cstabile says:

    You bring up the issue of narcissism, which is something that Turkle doesn’t really discuss. I don’t think she understands social media as promoting self-absorption, but rather that it promotes false senses of connection with human beings from whom we are physically and now psychologically distant. I actually find your question somewhat more interesting. Do social media make us more self-absorbed (which is saying a lot in a self-absorbed culture)? Or have social media merely amplified pre-existing forms of self-absorption? There’s that line from the documentary Waiting for Superman that cites statistics that suggest that while American students’ proficiency in reading, science, and math has been decreasing, they consistently rate number one in self-confidence.

    And since you opened with robots, there’s a classic study in primatology (well, might be more accurate to call it monkey torture) where newborn monkeys were taken away from their mothers and placed with surrogate mothering machines. Needless to say, it didn’t work out well for the baby monkeys, although it’s a classic study when it comes to understanding attachment and love:

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