Monthly Archives: May 2011

Alone Together

When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, ‘I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.’ The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible (loc 5642).

Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, is full of stories like this one. One of the reasons that Turkle’s books are so interesting is that she collects and tells the kind of stories that make you as the reader both scowl with judgement and cringe with self-recognition. Texting during a memorial service seems especially distasteful to me, but I know that I have done similar things, attempting to dissociate so that I did not have to be fully present in the place where I was, feeling the anxiety and sorrow that would be appropriate for the moment.

The first half of the book, reviewed in my last post, deals with social robotics, but the second half focuses on social networking technologies: not only the typical examples of Facebook and Myspace, but also mobile telephony, texting, instant messaging, simulations like Second Life, and confessional web sites (which are particularly interesting). For Turkle, social robotics and social networking are part of the same phenomenon; we are trying to use technology to mediate relationships so that we can control, or entirely avoid, their inherent risks. Turkle is concerned that we are trading away real human relationship for something that is shallow and ultimately narcissistic. It gives us the illusion of “being connected,” but we are left feeling alone. Like relational junk food, it satiates our immediate surface desires, but leaves our deeper relational needs malnourished.

Turkle’s critiques of Facebook and Myspace are similar to, but refreshingly different from, those of other authors. For example, Jaron Lanier, who worries that Facebook is causing adolescents to confuse their limited online profile with a fuller understanding of personhood, rarely quotes or cites interviews with real adolescent Facebook users to show that his concerns are genuine and not simply the projections of an older adult. Turkle, however, has spent her academic career talking with children and adolescents about identity formation online, and her extensive quotes show that most adolescents are fully aware that their Facebook profiles are just an avatar, a projection of who they would like to be, constructed for an audience.

Turkle reminds us that adolescents have always used artifacts to play with and project their developing identities. In the 1980s, we would decorate our cars, folders, book covers, and the inside of our locker doors with pictures, the names of cool bands, comics, or anything that would communicate a desired message about who we wanted others to perceive us to be. Today’s generation now does this same thing on Facebook or Myspace, but these new platforms are different in two important ways: they are always available, resulting in many adolescents feeling pressured to constantly perform on them; and those performances are very public and essentially permanent.

But Turkle is also quick to remind us that our use of these technologies is not determined by the systems themselves. Facebook’s wide availability, or the speed of text messaging, may afford constant performances and rapid responses, but it is we who require those patters of use. This is not a pedantic distinction; to confuse the two is to leave us with a false dichotomy–play along, or leave the game. It does not enable us to consider our third option: rewrite the rules.

Turkle notes that this kind of binary choice actually stems from the language of addiction, a language that many critics use when discussing the ills of social networking technologies, but one that is ultimately unhelpful. Turkle explains:

Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat the addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children…. The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes. This is hard and will take work. Simple love of technology is not going to help. Nor is a Luddite impulse (loc 5604).

Of course, those who are truly addicted to social networking technologies should seek help, and may need to discontinue using them, but for most of us, we must be suspect of both triumphal praise of, as well as apocalyptic predictions about, these technologies. Finding the middle road towards a more healthy pattern of use will be difficult, but it can be done.

Turkle ends the book with an encouragement that we have not yet locked ourselves into a particular pattern of use:

It is too early to have reached such an impasse. Rather, I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company. There will be more complicated things: to name only one, nascent efforts to reclaim privacy would be supported across the generations. And compassion is due to those of us–and there are many of us–who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play…. Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment (loc 5647).

I couldn’t agree more.

Sherry Turkle’s Robotic Moment

I was fifteen years old when the film The Terminator was released, and it offered just about everything a fifteen year old boy in the 1980s could ever wish for in a film: a mind-bending, time-warping science fiction plot; a massively-powerful, ruthless, motorcycle-riding, robotic bad guy; a clever, heroic, and thoroughly-human good guy; and of course a hot, but resourceful, female love interest. Like most adolescent boys, I was unsure which male character I would rather be; you are supposed to identify with the hero, but there was something kind of alluring about being a robot who could not be hurt, either physically or emotionally.

But the terminator in the first film was pretty frightening. He was so…well…inhuman. Like a runaway computer program, it pursued its goal without concern and without emotion. Although it had adopted a humanoid form, one could not relate to it like a human. It had absolutely no empathy. The terminator was strictly an “it.”

When the second film came out in 1991, it was hailed for its cutting-edge computerized graphic effects, but the graphics were not the only thing that had significantly changed (spoiler alert!). In a clever twist, a terminator with the same humanoid form shows up, but this time it was sent to protect the young future leader from a new, more-advanced model. The young future leader quickly learns to trust the good terminator, and begins to relate to it as if it were a human. In classic Star Trek fashion, the terminator begins to express more human traits, including a form of empathy and self-sacrifice. The film concludes with a tearful farewell scene, where the young future leader cries over the destruction of the good terminator in the same way he would do so over a fallen human friend. The machine had become a kind-of person, a sort-of “thou.”

This shift in human-machine relations is emblematic of what Sherry Turkle discusses in the first section of her new book, entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is a psychologist by training who has spent the last thirty years or so investigating the way humans relate to technology, especially computerized communication media. In this recent book, however, she spends the first section discussing various kinds of artificial intelligence and robotic toys: Tamagotchis, Furbies, AIBOs, and My Real Babies. She notes that children relate to these sociable toys in different ways than kids of my generation related to our Merlin, Simon, and Speak & Spell devices.

When children of my generation encountered these early “computational objects,” we were challenged to decide what exactly these new things were. Was the Speak & Spell just a noisy new kind of toy, or was it somehow intelligent or even “alive?” After all, it could ask me questions, respond to my answers, and beat me at spelling games, just like my mother could. But it was also a bit like the original terminator; its voice and mannerisms were highly mechanical, and it had a very limited repertoire of interaction. It didn’t take me long to feel no remorse when I turned it off and tossed it aside.

In the 1990s, children began to encounter a decidedly different sort of toy: one that not only seemed to think, but also to move and relate to them like a fellow creature. Despite the fact that Tamagotchis had only a digital manifestation, children felt real remorse when their Tamagotchis died, and would often “burry” them and buy new ones rather than simply reset their current one. When the Furby came out, the creature was given not only a physical manifestation, but also a voice, one that initially spoke “Furbish.” Children were encouraged to teach their Furby English, and amazingly the Furby seemed to respond to the teaching; in actuality, the Furby was pre-programmed to gradually shift to English no matter what happened, but the illusion helped the child bond with the toy in a way that went beyond the typical child-doll relationship. Children who “raised” these new social toys considered them to be “kind-of alive,” something more than a toy, perhaps closer to a pet.

Turkle observed this new classification first-hand through an experiment designed by Freedom Baird, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab. Baird developed a sort of Turing Test for the heart (see previous post), which was designed to determine “under what conditions a creature is deemed alive enough for people to experience an ethical dilemma if it is distressed” (loc 1062). Baird had her participants hold a Barbie doll, a Furby, and a biological gerbil upside-down for as long as their emotions would allow them to do so. None had troubles dangling Barbie upside down, and nearly all released the gerbil as soon as it showed signs of distress. When the participants flipped-over the Furby, it began to whine and say that it was scared, causing most to feel guilty and turn it back upright within thirty seconds. The participants, many of whom were adults who fully understood that the Furby was just a robot, found it difficult to torment the toy because its cries make them think of it as a fellow creature.

But is there anything wrong with children, or even adults, relating to their technological devices like fellow creatures? Turkle thinks there is. In the opening of the book, she states her concerns clearly:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time…. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other (loc 153).

Turkle worries that these social robotic toys are only the beginning. What will happen when clever engineers develop “My Real Girlfriend?” Will socially-awkward men prefer the company of a robotic girlfriend that is programmed to assert its will only just-enough to keep up the illusion?

Even if robotic girlfriends never come to pass, Turkle’s quote hints at another technologically-mediated form of relationship with which most of us are already quite familiar: social network media. That is the focus of the second part of her book, and will likewise be the focus of my next post.

For now, here is the ending scene from Terminator 2:

The Moneyless Man (a Review)

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!” You have probably heard that phrase, or said it yourself, at some point in your life. It was heard often in the house of my youth; my parents, like most parents, were typically stressed out about money. They argued about the proper way to spend it, how much to save, and whether any given purchase was worth it or not. They taught me from a young age to pay attention to money, to value it, to keep it safe, and above all else, never to waste it.

Although my parents may not have realized it, there is something very profound in that statement about money. Its colloquial meaning, that money is scarce, is most certainly true, but its literal meaning holds the seed of a rather startling revelation: money isn’t natural. Money doesn’t grow on trees, nor anywhere else for that matter; it doesn’t exist in nature apart from the agency of meaning-making human beings. Although it might seem as natural as the air we breathe, we humans created the idea of money, and we continue to reify the concept every time we use it, depend upon it, worry about it, talk about it, or even think about it.

Money is an invention, or we might say, a technology. My own technological definition of money goes like this: money is a set of interrelated concepts, artifacts, and techniques that we have created and adopted in order to reshape our physical and social worlds. As with other types of technology, those who understand it deeply, and know how to use it well, tend to benefit more from its reshaping power than others.

But to say that money was invented and adopted by humans at some point in our past also implies that it might be possible for us to reverse that decision at some point in our future. Could we really “un-invent” money? And more importantly, would we ever want to?

Interestingly, when people dream of the perfect society, it rarely involves money. In most of the utopian literature I’ve read, and in nearly all the utopian experiments I’ve studied, money is conspicuously absent. Sometimes, it is simply never mentioned, as if no one in the utopian society had ever considered such a thing to be necessary. Other times, it is explained to the reader that the society had simply eliminated the need for it by rationalizing the means of production so that scarcity no longer exists. If everyone could have as much of whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it, what would be the point of having money?

Most utopian experiments also ban the use of money, at least within the community. Typically this an attempt to reinforce the mutual reciprocal obligation that underpins truly inter-dependent communities, but which can be discharged by the use of money. For example, if your friend helps you move your belongings, you feel a natural obligation to help your friend move in return. But when you pay someone to move your belongings, you use money to discharge any obligation between you and those you hire. The social link between friends or neighbors who regularly help one another is typically strong and sustaining, while the link between payee and payor is typically weak, and forged only for the duration of self-interest.

Utopian experiments tend to come in waves, the last significant one being the commune movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nearly all fail within a few years, but that never stops the next generation from trying again. As my friend Kit Bakke wrote about her own experiences in the 1960s, utopian visionaries are typically aware of these previous failures, but they also are convinced that they have “found all the right answers that, somehow, everyone else had missed” (Miss Alcott’s E-mail, 100).

The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic LivingA few recent books have made we wonder if a new wave of utopian experimentation is now forming, and one in particular is very relevant to this discussion of money: The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living by Mark Boyle.

As the title suggests, this book is a chronicle of Boyle’s own Walden-like experiment of living without money for a year. Boyle sees money as the central cause of our current social ills, so his solution was to follow Gandhi’s advice, become the change he wanted to see, and stop using money altogether. His book recounts, often in painstaking detail, what it takes to live life without ever touching even so much as a penny.

How do you pay rent? You don’t; you get a trailer for free from a widow who no longer wants it and can’t afford to keep it. How do you heat your trailer? A wood-burning stove powered by salvaged wood. What about electricity? Solar panels and a wind turbine provide enough for his minimal uses. Water? Fetch drinking water from the nearby stream and build an outhouse for your “humanure.” And what about food? You grow it yourself, barter your labor for it, or simply go “urban foraging,” which is a nice euphemism for dumpster diving.

Even if one finds his self-imposed living conditions a bit extreme, his descriptions of urban foraging do raise important points about which most consumers are probably unaware. We in developed nations waste a shocking amount of perfectly edible food, and he is not referring to processed foods that are just past their sell-by dates. Nutritious produce is left rotting in the fields because of minor blemishes, or for being an undesirable shape, color, or size. Wholesalers and retailers begin throwing out produce as soon as it no longer looks “perfect,” even though it still tastes the same, and has the same nutritional benefits once cooked. Although it is difficult to know exactly how much is wasted, various estimates put it between one quarter and one half of our entire food production. At both the start and end of his year, Boyle provided a free meal for hundreds of people using nothing but foraged (both urban and wild) food.

Boyle freely admits that his experiment is not perfect. Most of what he uses to live required money to produce in the first place, and some of it was purchased by him before the start of his experiment. He rides his bicycle on roads created and maintained by tax money. There are points where he realizes that he could not fix or replace certain things he depended upon if they broke. Boyle can’t live as he truly wishes, because the rest of us have not yet followed along. Until the necessities of life are available to all for free, one cannot really escape the need for money.

The real point of his experiment was to spark the imagination. Like Thoreau at Walden, Boyle wants to raise our awareness of current problems and demonstrate that it might just be possible for us to live differently than we do now. But unlike Thoreau, Boyle did not return to his previous lifestyle after the year was over. Instead, he is pushing on, somewhat ironically using the proceeds of his book to form what he calls the first “freeconomic” community. It’s not clear how his community is any different from the moneyless utopian experiments of the past, but it will be intriguing to see if it survives past a few years.