M.I.T. Sherry Turkle

Founder-director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of Alone Together explains the consequences that people face in creating a culture of constant interruption.

Cyber-expert Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT and founder-director of the school's Initiative on Technology and Self. She's studied the changing relationships with digital culture for over three decades and written numerous articles on psychoanalysis and culture and on the "subjective side" of people's relationships with technology, especially computers. She's also authored many books, including Alone Together. Turkle holds a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard and is a licensed clinical psychologist.


Tavis: Sherry Turkle is a professor and researcher at MIT and founder of the MIT initiative on technology and self. Her new book is called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” She joins us tonight from Boston. Professor Turkle, good to have you on this program.
Professor Sherry Turkle: My pleasure.
Tavis: Let me start by asking you to unpack that subtitle for me, “Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” By that, you mean what?
Turkle: I mean that we turn to our devices. We turn to our devices, we text with our devices, but what we want back is a quick text. We don’t necessarily want to speak with each other; we don’t want really a close connection. We want something quick from each other, and we can get more involved with the device and what it offers, that sense of close connection, than really connecting with each other.
Sometimes we’re so busy communicating we don’t have time to really connect with the people who matter.
Tavis: Tell me why, then – I hear the point you’re making and I agree, but tell me why that, then, for you represents the necessarily for a book talking about the crisis of humanity at the dawn of this digital age.
Turkle: Well, because I think we’ve come to a point where we’ve had some experience with this technology, we’ve had it a few years. I spent 15 years studying this development. I didn’t want to study early adopters, I wanted to see how it unfolded, and I think we’re at a point where we’re so busy communicating that we don’t sometimes have time to think.
We’re so busy communicating we often don’t have time to create, so busy communicating we don’t have time to connect with the people who matter. At dinner, we text. Families text at the dinner table; they text at breakfast. I study kids in the park with their parents, and their parents are pushing the swing with one hand and texting with another. I study mothers who are breastfeeding and they’re texting.
We’re sort of falling in love with the technology and forgetting what we know about people and their relationships sometimes. I think it’s time to take stock.
Tavis: The long-term consequences and implications of that reality are what?
Turkle: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I’m finding among teenagers that there’s a new kind of psychology which I call, “I share, therefore I am.” That they move from a situation where they go I have a feeling, I want to make a call, to I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.
In other words, the very act of having a feeling becomes involved in texting it, and that can become a bad thing because people need to be able to contain themselves and know what their feelings are and not need other people even to know what you’re thinking or feeling.
There’s a very great thought in psychology that says if you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely. And in a way, we’re forgetting how to be alone. We’re forgetting how to have the kind of solitude that refreshes and restores. I worry about young people that way. I worry about them.
Tavis: Back to your earlier formulation, which I want to tweak here a bit now, which is essentially that I text; therefore, I am.
Turkle: Yes.
Tavis: I Facebook; therefore, I am.
Turkle: Yes.
Tavis: Talk to me, then, about how technology, especially for young people, but increasingly for those of us who are even chronologically gifted, but especially for these young folk, tell me how our identity these days, now more than ever, is connected – our identity connected to this technology.
Turkle: Right. Well, people become confused between what their Facebook profile is and who they are. For young people, what their status is on Facebook, what their profile is on Facebook becomes really the performance of their identity. People say to me, “Well, look, young people have always performed their identity. That’s not so new.”
The difference is the role that this Facebook profile has taken in really people’s sense of their essence, and the way they’re looked at by other kids. Also that it’s a 24/7 thing. People are going to sleep with their phones. So people say they know when their phones are ringing even when their phones aren’t around, it’s so much become a kind of phantom limb.
There’s a kind of sense that your phone is part of you, that you get anxious when your phone isn’t with you. This performance of identity, kids even become so anxious about this performance of self that sometimes they feel they need to take a break from that performance of identity on Facebook. I think that confusion of are you what you perform online or are you somebody else? It’s something that particularly adolescents have a very, very hard time sorting out.
Tavis: I was featured – and I’m raising this to make a point, not to put this out there – but I was featured a couple months ago in a “BusinessWeek” story, and on the cover of their magazine they had a funny headline that said, “What do Warren Buffett and Tavis Smiley Have in Common?” The answer: Absolutely nothing, except the fact that neither one of them uses a cell phone.
It is true that I do not own a cell phone. Now, I used to own a cell phone and I know the pressure – I know the pressure, literally, that one feels from his family, his friends, his coworkers and colleagues when he decides that he is no longer going to use a cell phone for whatever reasons.
I raise that to ask even if you wanted to check out in this era, in this age, how does one do that? How do you just check out when everybody else is doing it?
Turkle: Well, I think that’s a problem, because people talk about addiction and I don’t like the metaphor of addiction, because if you say you’re addicted, that this is a problem of addiction, there’s only one thing you can do, which is to get rid of it.
I don’t think we really have that option anymore. I’ll talk to you later about what you’re doing. (Laughter) But you essentially need an e-mail account to be in college. That is really how your professors get to you, that’s how you get your homework. You need to have an e-mail account.
So I think it’s much more healthy to think about this more the way you’d think about food. You don’t have the option of not eating. You have to think about a healthy diet, you have to think about how you’re going to deal with food. I think that’s really the point we’re at, is how we’re going to live a healthy life with this technology.
We don’t have to interrupt our friends at a meal to check what stranger has texted us.
Tavis: But you know what the response is – the response given, quite frankly, most often by parents – this is the excuse that parents, adults, give, and even young folk are giving the same excuse. “It might be an emergency, Professor Turkle. I’ve got to check because it might be an emergency.”
Turkle: Well, this question of emergencies, I’ve really looked into that. When I’m out to dinner with my colleagues, and I’m a professor, so I’m out to dinner with other professors. I say to them, “Are we really going to have some epistemological emergencies here?” (Laughter) What kind of emergencies are we talking about?
People know when they have a child in the hospital. People know when there’s someone ill in the family. We’ve created a sense of emergency, that these phones are for emergencies. Our children are living lives of constant interruption. I interview kids. They tell me they come out of school, they’re looking for that moment of eye contact with their parents, and the mother, let’s just take the mother, is sitting there on her BlackBerry or on her iPhone, texting.
The child, many of the children I interview, actually, their families are divorced and their parents are divorced, and the child comes out looking for that eye contact with the mother and the mother is texting. Or a child is – fathers and sons used to watch football on Sunday and the father would, in between plays or during commercials, they would chat. Now the father is sitting there doing stuff on his BlackBerry. These sons miss their dad. They miss their dad.
Tavis: So beyond the excuse, I think, that many of us give that there may be an emergency jumping off, for those of us who are in the business world, the common refrain, as you well know, is that it may be the office.
I raise that because it is true that we live in an ever more competitive world, and if you – let me just give myself as an example. If there is a particular person who’s trying to get to me, who may want to offer me an exclusive, and I don’t have a phone or I don’t check the phone and they don’t hear from me and that exclusive goes to Barbara Walters or Charlie Rose or Katie Couric or somebody – the point I’m making is that people really do feel like if they don’t have access immediately they’re going to miss out on an opportunity at work or someplace else.
Turkle: I’m just saying that we’ve taken this to an extreme, where at any moment we feel that we can sort of bail out on the people we’re with, on the work situation we’re at, during faculty meetings, during classes, during dinner with friends, during, during, during, and go to someplace else.
We have to find a balance so that we can live really a more fulfilling life with this technology. So I want you to have your exclusive, (laughter) I want people to know when they’ve gotten into college, to know when something wonderful has happened to them.
I’m not suggesting to unplug, but I study people texting at funerals, people texting during shiva calls, which is the Jewish rite when you visit the family of people who have lost a parent. Something is amiss, but I certainly think you’re right, that we’re not about to throw it over. We’ll get better at finding a balance, but we’re not going to give it up.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. It sounds to me like everything else in life, which is really about balance and moderation. I hear the point you’re making loud and clear.
Turkle: Okay.
Tavis: Professor Sherry Turkle’s new text is called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” Professor Turkle, thank you for the text and thanks for the chance to talk to you about it.
Turkle: Thank you, my pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm