Turkle & Technology: Fighting for Authentic Relationships

Yesterday I saw a woman looking down at her phone as she walked down the sidewalk only stopping when she hit the caution tape that prevented her from stumbling into a construction area. It was only when the tape physically pushed against her that she looked up and was surprised to see torn up cement slabs blocking her path. This somewhat comical occurrence made me immediately think of Sherry Turkle’s title Alone Together for here was a person completely within her own world texting away without realizing what was happening in present reality.

Technology is often described in hyperbole terms as the ultimate salvation or the end of civilization as we know it, but like most things it is not so black and white. Turkle bemoans the loss of close personal relationships with other living beings, but never outright says technology will doom us all. For her it is a critical question of authenticity with the view that technology mediated relationships are replacing authentic human ones. One reason given for this shift is because person-to-person “authentic” relationships are simply too hard to maintain (Turkle, 17).

While the definition of authenticity can be argued and hence the quotation marks, it is a rather disturbing thought that people want to use technology so that they can stop putting effort into a relationship. Technology as a replacement, not as an aid, of a relationship is a problem because it serves as an excuse- an excuse to not take care of an elderly parent, an excuse to not pay attention to your child, an excuse to not pay attention to the people in your life who need it the most. Turkle touches on this when telling the story of the elderly Miriam who was lonely because her son had stopped seeing her and consequently was being comforted by a robotic seal (8). No robot, no matter how cute and responsive it may be, can fully replace a pre-existing relationship. Similarly, the hurt that is caused by real relationships will not go away if that relationship is replaced via technology.

Rather than seeing this as an example of why people should swear off personal relationships with other humans, I see it as an illustration of society requiring a much needed discussion on personal and cultural beliefs when it comes to taking care of others. Technology can help us build better relationships and given enough research and testing, could potentially increase our levels of compassion for each other. Too much technology is bad, especially for child development[1], but if used conscientiously and deliberately then the authenticity of relationships may in fact be strengthened, not eroded.

[1] Overconsumption of TV, video games, and Internet has been found to delay children’s development, hurting both motor skills and one’s attention span (Rowan, “Unplug-Don’t Drug: A Critical Look at the Influence of Technology on Child Behavior With an Alternative Way of Responding Rather Than Evaluation and Drugging,” 2010).

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One Response to Turkle & Technology: Fighting for Authentic Relationships

  1. cstabile says:

    Some people who live in the US lead very isolated and lonely lives. There’s a great book by a sociologist that looked at a heat wave that happened in Chicago back in 1995. It was a particularly deadly heat wave — 750 people (most of them elderly) died during the course of it. Elderly men fared much worse than elderly women. I mention this because in his book Heat Wave, sociologist Eric Klinenborg talks about the demographics of the dead, trying to figure out why the heat wave killed so many older men, even though more older women lived by themselves. HIs answer mainly had to do with social isolation. These men had maintained few relationships over the years, many of them were not close with children or extended families — they were entirely alone and when the heat struck, there was no one to look in on them. Their isolation wasn’t caused by a reliance on technology and it wasn’t a perception of loneliness (which is what Turkle really is talking about — people perceive themselves as lonely — perceptions are not the same as reality). They were alone for a complex cluster of social reasons.

    We’ll talk about moral panics later this week and I think that might be a useful was into re-considering Turkle and the source you use to support your points in this. The author of that article is a sensory integration therapist — with a stake in the existence of something called “sensory processing disorder” (which the American Association of Pediatrics has cautioned against using as a diagnosis). Perhaps more on this in class this week.

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