Putting the Real on the Run
A researcher looks at how technology is transforming our sense of self
July 06, 2011 – Robert Leiter, Literary Editor
Thirty years ago, author Sherry Turkle joined the MIT faculty to study computer culture. A psychoanalytically trained psychologist, she wanted to explore how machines were affecting our sense of self. Back then, she explains in her new book, Alone Together, the world still retained “a certain innocence” in the realm of computing and interactivity. Children’s electronic toys allowed them to play tic-tac-toe; missiles in video games could destroy invading asteroids; “intelligent” programs could hold their own in a chess match. And the people who purchased the first home computers were called “hobbyists.”
Take the long leap forward to today, and Turkle states that technology, especially digital connections, now offer us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. A networked life allows us to hide from one another while simultaneously feeling tethered to one another.
The author provides an anecdote that illustrates this point, told in the words of a harried mother in her late 40s:
“I needed to find a new nanny. When I interview nannies, I like to go to where they live, so that I can see them in their environment, not just in mine. So, I made an appointment to interview Ronnie, who had applied for the job. I show up at her apartment and her housemate answers the door. She is a young woman, around 21, texting on her BlackBerry. Her thumbs are bandaged. I look at them, pained at the tiny thumb splints, and I try to be sympathetic. ‘That must hurt.’ But she just shrugs. She explains that she is still able to text. I tell her I am here to speak with Ronnie; this is her job interview. Could she please knock on Ronnie’s bedroom door? The girl with bandaged thumbs looks surprised. ‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I would never do that. That would be intrusive. I’ll text her.’ And so she sent a text message to Ronnie, no more than 15 feet away.”
Alone Together, subtitled “Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” which has been published by Basic Books, completes a trilogy — the earlier titles were The Second Self and Life on the Screen — and attempts to explain how we got to this point and whether or not people feel content with where they’ve arrived.
But there’s another layer to the book, and that is how technology, mostly in the form of companionable robots, has become “the architect of our intimacies,” suggesting substitutions “that put the real on the run,” as the author puts it.
According to Turkle, computers don’t wait any longer for us to project some sort of meaning onto them. In the case of sociable robots, they can meet our gaze, speak to us and learn in time to recognize us. They may ask us to care for them, and we come to imagine that they might care for us in return.
Care and Companionship
The author states that among the most talked about robotic designs in recent years are those in the area of care and companionship. In the summer of 2010, Turkle states, newspapers ran enthusiastic stories on robotic teachers, companions and therapists. “And Microsoft demonstrates a virtual human, Milo, that recognizes the people it interacts with and whose personality is sculpted by them,” she writes. “Tellingly, in the video that introduces Milo to the public, a young man begins by playing games with Milo in a virtual garden; by the end of the demonstration, things have heated up — he confides in Milo after being told off by his parents.”
Turkle is concerned about what this sort of behavior portends for the future. While some people may be looking to robots to clean their rugs or help do the wash, others, she found, are actually looking, literally, for “mechanical” brides. And as some of us “romance the robot” or become inseparable from our smartphones, Turkle writes, “we remake ourselves and our relationships with each other through our new intimacy with machines.” People are lonely and the network can prove particularly seductive, Turkle discovered in the course of doing her research and writing this book.
Some may dismiss all of this talk as sheer science fiction, but Turkle is here to tell us it’s not so. At one point, she discusses a book by David Levy, a British-born entrepreneur and computer scientist, which is titled, without a touch of irony, Love and Sex With Robots. It was reviewed — also without irony — in The New York Times back in December 2007. While Turkle admits that she’d been impressed by Levy’s inventiveness in the past, she found herself “underwhelmed” by the content and message of his new book. In the work, Levy argues that by mid-21st century humans and robots will be intimately entwined and that “love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans.”
According to Turkle, Levy insists that robots will teach humans to be better friends and lovers because we’ll be able to practice on them. And in certain realms where people may fail us, machines will not. Even if robots are the “other,” Levy argues that they will make better partners in terms of love and marriage. There would be no cheating and thus no heartbreak.
Writes Turkle: “In Levy’s argument there is one simple criterion for judging the worth of robots in even the most intimate domains: Does being with a robot make you feel better? The master of today’s computerspeak judges future robots by the impact of their behavior. And his next bet is that in a very few years, this is all we will care about as well.”
For someone with Turkle’s background and focus, the dangers in this arena of behavior are clear. She places a high value on relationships, on intimacy and authenticity, and she worries about seeking intimacy with a machine that can never have feelings, and is in reality what she calls a collection of “as if” performances — “performing as if it cared, as if it understood us. Authenticity, for me, follows from the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families, and know loss and the reality of death. A robot, however sophisticated, is patently out of this loop.”
Turkle was called by a reporter from Scientific American to comment on Love and Sex With Robots (Levy had used some of her ideas in his work) and she made it clear she wasn’t wild about any of the concepts it was advancing. She insisted that the simple fact that they were discussing marriage to robots was itself “a comment on human disappointments — that in matters of love and sex, we must be failing each other. I did not see marriage to a machine as a welcome evolution in human relationships. And so I was taken aback when the reporter suggested that I was no better than bigots who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry. I tried to explain that just because I didn’t think people should marry machines didn’t mean that any mix of adult people wasn’t fair territory. He accused me of species chauvinism: Wasn’t I withholding from robots their right to ‘realness’? Why was I presuming that a relationship with a robot lacked authenticity. For me, the story of computers and the evocation of life had come to a new place.”
This is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Alone Together. The book is divided into two parts containing seven chapters each. The first is titled “The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies”; the second bears the title “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes.” In these pages, Turkle explores all of the themes broached above while providing even more examples. The picture that arises from all this is not particularly comforting but it is always compelling and helps explain many behaviors one sees at play in society at large these days, especially among the young.
As Turkle points out at the end of her book, the findings she’s presented in these pages tend to confirm the impressions of the numerous psychotherapists she’s spoken to who have told her of an increasing number of patients “who present in the consulting room as detached from their bodies and seem close to unaware of the most basic courtesies. Purpose-driven, plugged into their media, these patients pay little attention to those around them. In others, they seek what is of use … . Their detachment is not aggressive. It is as though they just don’t see the point.”