Realtechnik and the Tethered Life

Sherry Turkle

(Adapted with permission from the author’s new book Alone Together:Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published this year by Basic Books) 

Online, she gives herself “permission to say mean things.” She says, “You don’t have to say it to a person. You don’t see their reaction or anything, and it’s like you’re talking to a computer screen so you don’t see how you’re hurting them. You can say whatever you want, because you’re home and they can’t do anything.”

Drea, a classmate sitting next to her, quips, “Not if they know where you live,” but Marcia doesn’t want to be taken lightly. She has found herself being cruel, many times. She ends the conversation abruptly: “You don’t see the impact that what you say has on anyone else.”

Marcia and Drea are part of a group of Silver Academy sophomores with whom I am talking about the etiquette of online life. One says, “Facebook has taken over my life.” She is unable to log off. “So,” she says, “I find myself looking at random people’s photos, or going to random things. Then I realize after that it was a waste of time.” A second says she is afraid she will “miss something” and cannot put down her phone. Also, “it has a camera. It has the time. I can always be with my friends. Not having your phone is a high level of stress.” A third sums up all she has heard: “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.”

Anxiety is part of the new connectivity. Yet, it is often the missing term when we talk about the revolution in mobile communication. Our habitual narratives about technology begin with respectful disparagement of what came before and move on to idealize the new. So, for example, online reading, with its links and hypertext possibilities, often receives a heroic, triumphalist narrative, while the book is disparaged as “disconnected.” That narrative goes something like this: the old reading was linear and exclusionary; the new reading is democratic as every text opens out to linked pages – chains of new ideas. But this, of course, is only one story, the one technology wants to tell.

There is another story. The book is connected to daydreams and personal associations as readers look within themselves. Online reading – at least for the high school and college students I have studied – always invites you elsewhere. And it is only some- times interrupted by linking to reference works and associated commentaries. More often, it is broken up by messaging, shopping, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. This “other story” is complex and human. But it is not part of the triumphalist narrative in which every new technological affordance meets an opportunity, never a vulnerability, never an anxiety.

Resist Idealizing

There were similar idealizations when it became clear that networked computers facilitated human multitasking. Educators were quick to extol the virtues of doing many things at once: it was how the future wanted us to think. Now we know that multitasking degrades performance on everything we try to accomplish. We will surely continue to multitask, deciding to trade optimum performance for the economies of doing many things at once. But online multitasking, like online reading, can be a useful choice without inspiring a heroic narrative.

We have to love our technology enough to de- scribe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us. These amended narratives are a kind of realtechnik. The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it is also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self. Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own. The two are often closely linked.

Degrees of Separation

So, for example, mobile connections help adolescents deal with the difficulties of separation. When you leave home with a cell phone, you are not as cut off as before, and you can work through separation in smaller steps. But now you may find yourself in text contact with your parents all day. And your friends, too, are always around. You come to enjoy the feeling of never having to be alone. Feeling a bit stranded used to be considered a part of adolescence, and one that developed inner resources. Now it is something that the network makes it possible to bypass. Teenagers say that they want to keep their cell phones close, and once it is with you, you can always “find someone.”

Sometimes teenagers use the network to stay in contact with the people they “know for real,” but what of online friends? Who are they to you? You may never have met them, yet you walk the halls of your school preoccupied with what you will say to them. You are stalked on Facebook but cannot imagine leaving because you feel that your life is there. And you, too, have become a Facebook stalker. Face- book feels like “home,” but you know that it puts you in a public square with a surveillance camera turned on. You struggle to be accepted in an online clique. But it is characterized by its cruel wit, and you need to watch what you say. These adolescent posts will remain online for a lifetime, just as those you friend on Facebook will never go away. Anxieties migrate, proliferate.

What I call real realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. It helps us acknowledge costs and recognize the things we hold inviolate. I have said that this way of envisaging our lives with technology is close to the ethic of psychoanalysis. Old-fashioned perhaps, but our times have brought us back to such homilies.

Because we grew up with the net, we assume that the net is grown-up. We tend to see it as a technology in its maturity. But in fact, we are in the early days. There is time to make the corrections. It is, above all, the young who need to be convinced that when it comes to our networked life, we are still at the beginning of things.

I am cautiously optimistic. We have seen young people try to reclaim personal privacy and each other’s attention. They crave things as simple as telephone calls made, as one eighteen-year-old puts it, “sitting down and giving each other full attention.”

Today’s young people have a special vulnerability: although always connected, they feel deprived of attention. Some, as children, were pushed on swings while their parents spoke on cell phones. 

Now, these same parents do their email at the dinner table. Some teenagers coolly compare a dedicated robot with a parent talking to them while doing email, and parents do not always come out ahead. One seventeen-year-old says, “A robot would remember everything I said. It might not under- stand everything, but remembering is a first step. My father, talking to me while on his BlackBerry, he doesn’t know what I said, so it is not much use that if he did know, he might understand.”

Forward Together

The networked culture is very young. Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connection that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place. The generation that has grown up with the net is in a good position to do this, but these young people need help. So as they begin to fight for their right to privacy, we must be their partners. We know how easily information can be politically abused; we have the perspective of history. We have, perhaps, not shared enough about that history with our children. And as we ourselves, enchanted, turned away from them to lose ourselves in our email, we did not sufficiently teach the importance of empathy and attention to what is real.

To move forward together – as generations together – we are called upon to embrace the complexity of our situation. We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us. The prospect of loving, or being loved by, a machine changes what love can be. We know that the young are tempted. They have been brought up to be. Those who have known life- times of love can surely offer them more.

When we are at our best, thinking about technology brings us back to questions about what really matters. When I recently traveled 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 the music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the printed 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. Later, I discussed the texting with some close friends. Several shrugged. One said, “What are you going to do?” A shrug is appropriate for a stalemate.

Reclaiming Good Manners

That’s not where we are. 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. We now know that our brains are rewired every time we use a phone to search or surf or multitask. As we try to reclaim our concentration, we are liter- ally at war with ourselves.

Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment. We have agreed to an experiment in which we are the human subjects. Actually, we have agreed to a series of experiments: robots for children and the elderly, technologies that denigrate and deny privacy, seductive simulations that propose themselves to be places to live.

We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better. 

Sherry Turkle is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She writes about people’s relationships with technology, especially computers, and is considered an expert on mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics. Her books include Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995) and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press, 2009).