Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Does Sociality Outweigh Stress?

"We have to put technology in its place," said MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle when she appeared on The Colbert Report recently. The message: Technology is consuming us. Turkle takes issue with the constant texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking that happens at the dinner table by both children and adults. She believes we have yet to fully understand the ramifications of our relationship with the digital. This state of constant connection is degrading our ability to communicate with each other—the quality of our conversations is declining. We ask simpler questions and we get simpler answers thanks to the ease of texting. And we haven't fully understood the impact of all that we share. We need privacy, she argued. "What is intimacy without privacy? What is democracy without privacy?" Can we truly have these things without privacy?

Turkle painted a bleak picture for the release of her book, Alone Together, to which Colbert responded that he respected the amount of work she had put into her research, but her message might be more effective if she could distill it to 140-characters. I think that he actually hit the nail on the head with that remark. I'm actually a huge fan of Turkle's work. Her other books The Second Self and Life on the Screen were instrumental to me when I started my forays into digital sociality. But this interview represented a definite break from her normal stance on technology—although admittedly, hints of this were evident during her panel at the Paley Center last year. I want to be clear that Turkle has continued to express support for our technological inclinations. However, she thinks that we may be taking it a bit far. While I agree that it's easy for us to get swept away in a sea of digital communication, I think that perhaps we're overlooking the ways in which we can adapt to these circumstances and the ways in which these types of media have actually brought us together.

So I have a confession to make: When S and I go out to eat, I make him leave his various devices in the car. (Aside: Hi coworkers of S! I guess the cat's out of the bag. You can totally blame me for that unanswered email.) And he's fine with it. He has a job that requires him to be available for emergencies all the time—such as when we were in line to ride Space Mountain at Disney World, and occasionally at 2:30 in the morning. A part of me understands what Turkle is trying to warn about, and it's something that I've explored here on AiP (i.e., the ways in which iPods and smart phones actually help us disconnect from the physical world around us). But I want to be cautious about falling into the tech-evangelist category. There's a great deal to be said for the increasingly social nature of the web and technology overall.

Social technologies can truly expand real-life networks, and help users connect with some amazing people in real life. The most recent example of this in my own life was the Science Online 2011 conference. Here was a group of people that I connected with on Twitter, spent time conversing with and following, and sharing bits of my life with, that I got to meet in person partly because I was a participant in a social medium that allowed us to find each other. And when we met, the truth was that it was like meeting old friends for lunch. We knew each other fairly well. We had things to talk about. There wasn't any of that awkward fumbling for common ground. Granted, it took work to get to that point. I'm not saying that I signed on to Twitter and magic happened. What I am saying is that these sorts of technologies allowed me to position myself so that I could connect with people who are relevant to me and my interests—people that I might not have known otherwise.

Interactions online and via text don't replace face-to-face contact. And I think this is really the heart of Turkle's argument. We have a basic human need to connect with each other. But I truly think that people are beginning to understand this—if you're on Twitter and haven't been to a tweetup recently, then you're doing it wrong. That's not to say that there aren't extreme cases or that we aren't still struggling to create and understand boundaries. Turkle discusses cases of children who talk of being ignored by their parents at the dinner table while the parents respond to emails and perform other digital tasks, and this definitely presents a problem. But I tend to agree with Steve Rosenbaum's feature in FastCompany where he argues that we need to establish social rules to match our social tools. Rosenbaum also agrees with Turkle's point that technology can be invasive, but rightly notes that we're in the process of figuring out how to negotiate what he calls "social homework" and real world obligations.

The results of a recent survey from Pew Internet reveal that 80% of internet users participate in groups (N=2,303). What was particularly revealing about the clarifying data shared by Pew is that it demonstrates how people are leveraging media to broaden the meaning and impact of their online relationships. Folks with online connections were more likely to participate in real-world events relating to their group membership:

I think what we may eventually find—if we can get a handle on the social rules that Rosenbaum advocates for—is that connective and social technologies actually let us fine tune our real world activities. Communication is changing, and it bears watching, needs to be moderated, and we should proceed with caution. But we also need to be aware that preemptive restraint or social/digital avoidance can also hinder our own potential via these sorts of media. Increasingly, digital literacy seems to be more and more relevant and important. I think it's really time that we started focusing on how to educate users about digital boundaries, netiquette, and using the tools that are available. Technology is here to stay. We do need to control it, so let's starting having the conversations that truly matter.


  1. This is so great, and you identify where I am also uncomfortable with Turkle's analysis.

  2. Thanks, Kate. I'm looking forward to reading her latest though. Perhaps digital literacy is a topic we could explore at SCIO12.