Discussion on Sherry Turkle lecture at Georgia Tech

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This page is for discussion on Sherry Turkle's Alone Together brown bag talk at Tech on Thursday, March 31 2011.


About Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle is a Social Studies of Science and Technology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is a sociologist, psychologist and digital technology researcher who is well known for her research on relationships between people and technology -- primarily computer technology. Her resarch also includes the impact of technology such as "sociable robots" on society. Turkle focuses her writing in the area of humanity's existence with technology.

Alone Together

In 1984, when Turkle began her work at MIT, she saw the depth of relationship and the connection that people had with computers. This fascination caused her to completely drop her studies of psychoanalysis and begin to study the humane connection with computers. Her first book, Second Self, focused on the interaction with the first personal computers. The name "Second Self" came from a student who, while describing a programming course, state that "when you program a computer, you put a little piece of your mind into the computer's mind and you see yourself differently.

"Alone Together" focuses on two topics: sociable robotics and always on technology. She opens with the story of sociable robotics and the idea that once we think there is a sentient being looking at us or once we are asked to care for it, we will have a fantasy that it will care for us as well. She quotes a colleague of hers to summarize this affect: "We nurture what we love, but we love what we nurture." She focuses on her experience with the Cog robot at the MIT AI lab. She found herself disappointed that she could not get the attention of the robot because she was wearing the "wrong" color shirt and her colleague was wearing the "right" color shirt. No matter how much she knew that Cog didn't know anything, she still wanted its attention. "When an object reaches out to us, we want to care for it and we want it to care for us." She infers that humans are vulnerable to new attachments; to the inanimate that pretend to understand us. She points out that this sort of technolgy is becomming more and more apparent as it is being implemented in nanny bots and robots for elder care. We are truly alone, but experience a new sense of intimacy with the inanimate.

The second topic Turkle focuses on in her book is always on technology. Her research in the past has focused on the development of online communities like MUDs and chatrooms. She furthers this with generalizations she's been able to make in the 15 years that she's been studying online communities. She has noticed that the evolution of technology has allowed for more of these communities to develop, particularly with the onset of powerful cellphones. She posits that the people live in two distinct worlds and we wear the virtual on us. Many compare their lives in real life, or RL with their virtual lives. Some find their virtual lives more favorable than their real lives. The technology exists that we can now, at any time of the day, be somewhere other than where we are currently. A popular practice is to be texting at all times. Mothers may be texting while reading stories to their children, while at the dinner table etc. Turkle believes that this is producing children who don't feel like they have their parents full attention among other things. She recounts a 15 year old's birthday party that she attended. There were several kids of that age group there. After everyone was tired of the party, they went to their phones. Each of them had mentally exited the party while they were still there. This is a new occurence with the onset of always on technology.


"If you can't learn to live alone, you will always feel lonely". This was stated by Sherry Turkle as she addressed the effects of technology during her visit to Georgia Tech. She states that we have become engrossed with the virtual world and have left the real world behind: parents texting while their children are trying to talk with them, texting at the dinner table, being in front of the computer screen all the time. She points to the fact that not long ago, people who wore technology on their persons were rejected by society but it is now widely accepted with the use of portable computers and cell phones.  

"I share therefore I am" - Turkle. Turkle points of an entrance into a new age of humanity where self-reflection no longer defines who we are but instead sharing with others is how we define ourselves within the context of the world.  She states that constant connection to others and our ability to access any one in a moment's notice has altered how we define ourselves.  We no longer have time to be with ourselves when technology offers a way to always be with others.

Technology proposes itself an architect of our intimacies. And these days, technology offers us substitutes for direct face-to-face connection with people in a world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. We talk of getting “rid” of our e-mails, as though these notes were so much excess baggage. Teenagers as well as adults avoid the telephone, fearful that it reveals too much. Besides, it takes too long; across the generations, we would rather text than talk.

Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world unplugged does not signify, does not satisfy. Yet after an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we may feel at one moment, in possession of a full social life, and in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers.

The world of our connections comes with so many bounties. But we begin to see that some things are amiss: sometimes we are too busy communicating to think, too busy communicating to create, and paradoxically, too busy communicating to connect with the people who matter. [1]

Digital Dieting

Another important topic which Turkle covers is how the use of technology has been related to the metaphor of addiction. She criticizes this metaphor, citing that with addiction, the addict is cornered with one alternative: to completely quit. Turkle states that people have become to involved with technology to think about "quitting," and acknowledges our strong interdepence with our electronic devices. Instead, she offers a better metaphor -- the metaphor of dieting. The key factor of this metaphor is the notion of controlling one's use of technology instead of completely abandoning it. 

When asked by a member of the audience if the metaphor of dieting is still appropriate considering the relationship of the US with food, Turkle responded yes. Her reasoning was "it shows how hard it is." Furthermore, she believes that because a new food sensibility is starting to manifest itself among American consumers, a similar pattern on technological sensibility will follow.


In Turkle's lecture on her book Alone Together, she discussed an interesting point that many people today use technology to isolate themselves. She used the example of how many people prefer to send text messages rather than talk on the phone. I think this point makes a good deal of sense. I have had many friends who would rather text than talk for the exact reason. As a counter point, I prefer to talk to people on the phone because it allows me to actually communicate with the person on the other end of the phone, rather than condense my though in to a few hundred computer characters. A significant amount of human communication is not in how the message is said, and you loose that when commicating through text messages.


  1. "GVU Brown Bag - Sherry Turkle | GVU Center at Georgia Tech." GVU Center at Georgia Tech | Unlocking Human Potential Through Technical Innovation. Web. 30 Mar. 2011. http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/node/4778.

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