What’s wrong with being alone?

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently enjoyed watching Sherry Turkle’s TED video on being ‘Connected But Alone’.  This explores the idea, which also features in her most recent book (Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other), that technology can act as a tool of isolation and can actually reduce meaningful social interaction.

In this TED talk, Turkle issues a warning that people’s constant connection via digital technology, (focusing particularly on the example of smart phones) is not a replacement for real conversation, arguing that bitesized communiqués, how ever many one shares, do not add up to a deep meaningful interaction.  She goes further, suggesting that such constant connectivity can actually block real human connection and offers the example of a meal table where parents ignore their children because they’re too busy checking their smart phones.  The implication here is that technology is the cause of isolation and poor familial communications.

Turkle offers more examples and deepens her argument in a fascinating way by discussing the longer-term implications of this kind of technology use for our internal dialogues and self-analysis and our ability to deal with solitude.  However, here, I want to discuss very briefly the main point of the video: that technology blocks and reduces real world interaction.

Taking up Turkle’s example of smart phones, I absolutely agree that they can be used as tools that inhibit face-to-face dialogue. I have failed numerous times to get a proper response from someone because they have been too engrossed in their phone.  More often, I’m sorry to say, I have been guilty of being engrossed in my phone myself.  However, Turkle expands on this and places her arguments within a discourse of moral panic about technology and, in doing so, assumes a causal relationship between technology and poor social interaction.

The image of parents ignoring their children at the dinner table is an excellent example of the morality she introduces.  Here the smart phone is immediately portrayed as the cause of the break down of tradition family values: a child’s desire to reach out and communicate with the older generation is ignored because traditional modes of meaningful conversation have been replaced by mobile phone screens and an addiction to shallow quick hits of controllable digital data.  The image is so emotive that the technology is immediately cast as a causal villain and an instant condemnation is demanded.

However, what goes unsaid is the fact that parents have been finding ways to ignore their children long before the invention of smart phones.  If not newspapers, books or even 1000-yard stares, it’s been cultural rules relating to children being ‘seen but not heard’. This intergenerational conflict is wonderfully described by Waugh (in Brideshead Revisited) where the dinner table becomes Charles and his father’s battleground with the printed word being the weapon of choice.

In fact people have been finding ways of avoiding social interaction for years in a number of contexts that extend far beyond familial interaction: on the bus, the train, the tube, the street, work, the gym, the pub etc.  It’s true modern technology is an excellent tool for doing this, but it is not the only one and historically has not been the only one.  It is part of a long list of, to modify the meaning of Foucault’s term, technologies of power, which have been used to control social interactions – reading, writing, whistling, praying, blankly staring, or simply frowning have all been used as methods of excluding external intrusion.  Perhaps, then, rather than technology causing the break down of social interaction, it’s use as a tool to socially isolate the user from what’s going on around him/her should be thought of as an expression of a basic human need – a need, at times, to have a break from the people we are with.

The roles that modern digital technologies and social media play in our lives are highly complex and far more nuanced than the idea that they cause social breakdown (and far more nuanced than my light hearted idea that they are an expression of a basic human need to occasionally socially exclude – although that may be one important role that they play).  I think the place of technologies in our lives is fascinating and should be thoroughly researched and discussed.  However, I’m inclined to think that moralizing about technology’s evil effects and reduction to cause and effect does more to hinder this research agenda than progress it.

James Robson

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