Alone Together

Day’s Verse:
So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:7 (but refer to the whole thing)

Hugging Ghost ShakersOne of the great things about this being my blog is that I can put up whatever I feel like. Today I want to explore some ideas raised by a book I’ve been reading. I don’t fully know what I think about this book — that is, I haven’t developed a strong stance one way or another on what the author talks about. But I’m going to talk through some thoughts and see where this goes.

The book is called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle. Google the title and you’ll get all sorts of interesting articles and discussions. Here I’m going to present some quotes, in order of appearance, that stood out for me. Perhaps taken all together, they’ll give insight into what I think. Click below the fold for the quotes. There’s a huge gap in page numbering because, after the introduction, the first half of the book explores the interactions between people and social robots, which is thought-provoking, but not my main interest at the moment.

As I think about the collection of ideas I’ve accumulated here, several things stand out: the teenager’s comment that if you answer a phone call, you might have to get in a conversation; the idea of going to the Internet for “another hit of what feels like connection”; and the idea that “we go online because we are busy but end up spending more time with technology and less time with each other.” Another hit of connection. Hmm.

I think this is, by and large, true. Smartphones are great for coordinating meetups or asking your husband to bring milk home. Facebook is good for seeing a shallow skimming of your “friends'” lives. But I keep returning to the idea that people are meant for depth in relationship. The love that God holds for us and wants us to share with each other is based on relationship much deeper than text messages and Facebook statuses; it’s built, brick by brick, over time, as you spend time one-on-one with others. My sense is that we are lonely, longing for connection, and, turning to social networks, receive information instead.

Here’s what I’m doing about it. I’m calling people. I’m setting up times to meet in person, one-on-one, to just spend time together. I’m writing notes to friends, on paper, and mailing them. I’m going to ask people to check their phones at the door when they come to visit so that our time isn’t interrupted with constant distractions. I’m making an effort to reach out to people in everyday life: The mailman, the checkout person at Safeway, the receptionist at my PT office, the stranger who sits in my booth at the bakery (that story another time). I’m cutting back on Facebook time, although not cutting it out entirely, because it is good for some things. I don’t think technology is bad, and I love what it can do at times. I’m just going to try to put it in its place: Below the people in my life. No machine should be more important than a human being.

  • Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. (1)
  • We romance the robot and become inseparable from our smartphones. As this happens, we remake ourselves and our relationships with each other through our new intimacy with machines. People talk about Web access on their BlackBerries as “the place for hope” in life, the place where loneliness can be defeated. A woman in her late sixties describes her new iPhone: “It’s like having a little Times Square in my pocketbook. All lights. All the people I could meet.” People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude. (3)
  • …we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life, and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind? (11-12)
  • We discovered the network–the world of connectivity–to be uniquely suited to the overworked and overscheduled life it makes possible. And now we look to the network to defend us against loneliness even as we use it to control the intensity of our connections. Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will. (13)
  • The new technologies allow us to “dial down” human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. (15)
  • …when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection become redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimices slide into cybersolitudes. (16)
  • Overwhelmed by the volume and velocity of our lives, we turn to technology to help us find time. But technology makes us busier than ever and ever more in search of retreat. Gradually, we come to see our online life as life itself. (17)
  • One of my friends posted on Facebook, “The problem with handling your e-mail backlog is that when you answer mail, people answer back! So for each 10 you handle, you get 5 more!”… This is becoming a common sentiment. Yet it is sad to hear ourselves refer to letters from friends as “to be handled” or “gotten rid of,” the language we use when talking about garbage. (168)
  • At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish them to be, constructing them for your purposes. It is a seductive but dangerous habit of mind. When you cultivate this sensibility, a telephone call can seem fearsome because it reveals too much.

    Elaine is right in her analysis: teenagers flee the telephone. Perhaps more surprisingly, so do adults. They claim exhaustion and lack of time; always on call, with their time highly leveraged through multitasking, they avoid voice communication outside of a small circle because it demands their full attention when they don’t want to give it. (188)

  • Mandy [a teenager] presents a downbeat account of a telephone call: “You wouldn’t want to call because then you would have to get into a conversation.” (200)
  • When online life becomes your game, there are new complications. If lonely, you can find continual connection. But this may leave you more isolated, without real people around you. So you may return to the Internet for another hit of what feels like connection. Again, the Shakespeare paraphrase comes to mind: we are “consumed with that which we were nourished by.” (227)
  • Connectivity becomes a craving; when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us. A new generation already suspects this is the case. I think of a sixteen-year-old girl who tells me, “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.” (227)
  • …among all of its bounties, here the Internet has given us a new way not to think. (240)
  • Facebook feels like “home,” but you know that it puts you in a public square with a surveillance camera turned on. (243)
  • Abandoning digital connection, he [a teenage boy] says, he is “sacrificing three hollow conversations” in favor of “one really nice social interaction with one person.” He acknowledges that “not doing IM reduces the amount of social interacting you can do in one day,” but doesn’t mourn the loss: “Would you rather have thirty kind-of-somewhat-good friends or five really close friends?” (274)
  • We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each other’s full attention. We have instant audiences but flatten out what we say to each other in new reductive genres of abbreviation. (280)
  • …even a lot of people from a distance can turn out to be not enough people at all. WE brag about how many we have “friended” on Facebook, yet American say they have fewer friends than before. When asked in whom they can confide and to whom they turn in an emergency, more and more say that their only resource is their family.

    The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy. We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, as we push our children on swings in the park. We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in “real time.” (280)

  • We go online because we are busy but end up spending more time with technology and less time with each other. At the limit, we will settle for inanimate, if that’s what it takes. (281)
  • …the findings are in: we are connected as we’ve never been connected before, and we seem to have damaged ourselves in the process. A 2010 analysis of data from over fourteen thousand college students over the past thirty years shows that since the year 2000, young people have reported a dramatic decline in other people. (293)
  • At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place. (294)

2 thoughts on “Alone Together”

  1. He checks it at the counter, actually. When he gets home, he usually puts it down, plugs it in, and leaves it alone until he leaves the next morning.

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