Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alone Again, Naturally

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm currently reading Sherry Turkle's book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011).

It's an extremely interesting read.  Turkle has spent her career focusing on the impact of technology on the construction of human identity.

Alone Together looks at information that spans nearly thirty years of human interaction with artificial intelligence, robots, email, the Internet, cellular technology (I-Phones, I-Pads, texting) and social networking (Second Life, Facebook, My Space, Twitter).

Personally, my engagement with all of the above has been pretty limited: I use email and the Internet, but I don't usually text (I have the option, but I pay per message and my cell doesn't have a keyboard so I can't "thumb-type" at all).

I have never used Second Life, My Space or Twitter.  I'm not a gamer.  I don't have an I-Phone, BlackBerry or I-Pad.

I've been on Facebook for the past year and a half.  At first I thought it was fun, but I have to say, over time, I've come to not like it all that much. 

As I mentioned in a post last year (Getting By With A Little Help From Our Friends), I have issues with the way in which the idea of "Friends" seems to be defined by Facebook and its users.

I think it really should be "People That I Know.  Or Know Slightly.  Or Knew Years Ago, But Never See Anyway.  Or Wish I Knew.  Or That I Just Added.   Or That I Was Engaged To.  Or That I May or May Not Be Sleeping With Right Now."

Friendship isn't supposed to be so convoluted.

This is an issue Turkle examines in depth.  In particular, she argues that "Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control.  This can't happen when one is face-to-face with a person" (157).

So we resort to email, texting, IM and--if absolutely necessary--phone calls, in order to try to achieve the controlled connection we crave.

It has all back-fired terribly, of course.  Because we're "always on," Turkle notes, we are never far from all of the stresses of work and our other commitments, which ultimately affect both our private and our public selves.

As a result, we have come to define ourselves in terms of our ability to quickly and efficiently process the demands of love and friendship.
The self shaped in a world of rapid response measures success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached.  This self is calibrated on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy. ... As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don't allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems. (166)
The result is that "the connected life encourages us to treat those we meet online in something of the same way we treat objects--with dispatch. ... Similarly, when we Tweet or write to hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends as a group, we treat individuals as a unit" (168).

As a result, our intimate lives have become strangely scripted.  Many now prefer to conduct relationships over email, through texts and via Facebook because they allow time to shape a sense of "who you are" and thus eliminate the frightening sense of vulnerability that (necessarily) accompanies all sense of intimacy.

Meanwhile, as Turkle notes, young Facebook users are incredibly savvy about the strategies and implications of identity-construction in their profiles, and they're well aware of the risks that accompany trust.

In Alone Together, one teen describes finding out that his IM messages were "recorded" without his knowledge and forwarded, after some cutting and pasting.

Another describes breaking up with her boyfriend on IM--an act for which she still feels guilty, a year or two later, but which she felt she had to do: "I wasn't trying to chicken out, I just couldn't form the words, so I had to do it online, and I wish I hadn't.  He deserved to have me do it in person.... I'm very sorry for it" (197).

The fact is, all of us who came of age prior to the digital age know exactly the kind of teenage angst she's talking about.  The difference is, all of us had to face such crises in person--even if you gave someone the brush-off or avoided them until you were spotted with someone else and thus made it clear that it was "over," there were real-world consequences of such behavior.

Everyone saw what you had done, and what you were doing: it wasn't all on-screen and yet behind the scenes.

This invisibility fundamentally changes the role of meaning, words and emotion in human relationships.  Although they resort increasingly--if not exclusively--to online forms of communication and interaction, teens still recognize the value of face-to-face interaction, even if it does at times seem like a lost ideal.
"An online apology.  It's cheap.  It's easy.  All you have to do is type 'I'm sorry'.  You don't have to have any emotion, any believability in your voice or anything.  It takes a lot for someone to go up to a person and say, 'I'm sorry', and that's when you can really take it to heart.  If someone is going to take the easy way out and rely on text to portray all these forgiving emotions, it's not going to work." (196)
In the 1950s, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that it is only through the face-to-face encounter with the Other that we forge an ethical self.  We see in another's face someone who is both similar to and different from ourselves and this experience imposes a demand upon us that we must respond to.

We cannot bypass that interaction and still hope to behave ethically.  We cannot electronically avoid other people and still hope to function as empathetic, moral beings.

It is hard to imagine Levinas being comfortable in a world in which the face-to-face encounter is now a Facebook profile.  It's hard to imagine a world in which apologies are delivered electronically and break-ups are the stuff of instant messages, but that is the world we currently have. 

Having experienced this myself, I can say that my immediate reaction echoes the innocent irony of Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest: "Oh, brave new world, That has such people in't."

For now, though, most of my friends live their lives off-screen, and our friendships--with all of their various ups and downs--take place in the real world, in real-time.

And I still always have hope that one day the ease of the online world will come to seem incredibly hollow and that, when it does, the others out there will stop in and say "hello."

Then we can look each other in the eye and talk again, like humans are meant to do.  Because at the end of the day, that's the only way to show that someone really matters to you.
Life is very short, and there's no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it's a crime,
So I will ask you once again...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."