Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alone Together

I love my iphone. I love all that it can do, I love how the texting works, I love how I can get a response to something I say to someone really quickly.

However, sometimes this technology, amazing as it is, is frustrating.

I have had times at work when a customer has asked me for help and, expecting that I had their full attention, looked up to find them them staring at their phone, reading or sending a text, or even taking or making a call. I have been put in the position of having to wait for them to finish whatever they are doing so I can help them find what they approached me for!

"Kenley" has also expressed frustration about technology. She moved from Florida to Oregon and has been a bit homesick. When she lived in Florida, she talked to her friends on the phone often. Now that she's moved across the country, they all seem to want to stay in contact by text or facebook; they don't call. She said, "I'd much rather hear their voices than just see a message from them. I don't get it." She was geographically far away from her friends, and the technology made her friends feel even further away.

I told her how I'd had similar frustrations, and that I found Sherry Turkle's new book, ALONE TOGETHER: WHY WE EXPECT MORE FROM TECHNOLOGY THAN FROM EACH OTHER.


In the beginning of the book, Turkle started talking about computers and devices designed for social interaction, and she described the development of our attachment to technology. This wasn't exactly the subject I thought it would be, but it was really interesting.

She started out talking about ELIZA, the computer program created in the 1970's to mimic some psychotherapeutic responses. When people typed in a thought, ELIZA used language that offered support or asked for clarification. All ELIZA could do was rearrange words into questions or supportive statements. If a user said "My mother is making me angry", ELIZA might respond "Tell me more about your mother," or, "Why do you feel so negatively about your mother?"

People interacting with ELIZA knew that ELIZA had no concept of what a mother was, and that ELIZA could not feel anger, and yet people wanted to interact with it and found themselves talking to the computer program and telling it things they would not share with another person.

From ELIZA to tamagotchis to Furbys to My Real Baby to AIBO the dog to Cog and Kismet, Turkle described how computer programmed devices are designed to make people want to interact with them. And they do! Turkle observed and interviewed many people, people who were often surprised by their own strong responses and attachments they had to these devices, wanting the device to respond to them, even wanting the devices to like them. People unburdened their secrets to them and shared their lives with them. This section of the book talked about technology designed for social interaction, often as a substitute for human interaction.

In the second part of the book, she talked about how we are becoming more connected to technology, technology that helps us communicate with each other more easily. Her premise is that this technology reduces intimacy or connection between individuals.

I read...

"Not that many years ago, one of my graduate students talked to me about the first time he found himself walking across the MIT campus with a friend who took an incoming call on his mobile phone. My student was irritated, almost incredulous. 'He put me on "pause." Am I supposed to remember where we were and pick up the conversation after he is done with his call?'... Mobile technology has made each of us 'pauseable.'"

Exactly! And...

"When someone holds a phone, it can be hard to know if you have that person's attention. A parent, partner, or child (and I would add, "customer") glances down and is lost to another place, often without realizing that they have taken leave."

I appreciated that she articulated feelings I've had. (And I know that I am not guilt free here, I know that I have "paused" other people.)

She says...

"When media are always there, waiting to be wanted, people lose a sense of choosing to communicate."

That seems to be the key (or a key). When it's so easy and so immediate, we feel compelled to communicate. Yet by doing so, it takes us away from being focused on what we're doing in the moment. Strange. I've felt it as a user, when I've removed myself from where I am (in a store, with someone else) to attend to a text message. And I've felt it when others have done it when they've been with me.

I so appreciated Turkle's highlighting some concerns about technology's effect on our relationships, connections and lives. I know that Kenley and I have felt the impact of technology in our lives. I hope that this book heightens awareness about how the technology people allow into their lives affects their relationships. I know it's helped me be more conscious of how I use technology to connect with others, as well as how it may be getting in the way of my connections.

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