Reaching Beyond Technology: Embracing the Boring Bits

When Sherry Turkle was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, she and her family had what she considers a healthy relationship with technology. “In my family, we yelled at the television set,” she recalls. “And we watched it together—it was a social activity.”

Now, she yearns for those days when the information coming across the screen was the shared subject of discussion and debate.

For the past 30 years, Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has been writing about the way technology affects our human interactions. Her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, concludes that we are at a moment of temptation with our machines: we are asking them to do things that only people can accomplish.

But this an unfolding drama, Turkle says. She believes that technology is “amazing” and can enhance communication in astounding ways. But that doesn’t mean, she cautions us, that it can take over, where only conversation among humans will suffice.

“One of the things we’ve learned about technology is that it tends to make us forget what we know about life,” she says. “You always put what you know about people first.”

Turkle stresses that the Internet is still developing, and that we can shape as it moves forward. That is why she disagrees that we should simply accept technological progress because it is “inevitable.”

“On the contrary,” she thinks, “As technology becomes more mature, we have more experience and can develop a more commonsense set of ideas about who should use it and how it should be used.”

As a case in point, she harkens back to the 1920s when it was legal for anyone of any age to drive a car. As time went on, most states settled on 16 as a good minimum driving age. Turkle notes: “We didn’t have any trouble deciding it would be a good thing to keep ten-year-olds out of cars. Why do we feel so unconfident that we can’t make a decision like that about Facebook? It is not beyond us to decide that we don’t want ten-year-olds on social media.”

Turkle has extensively studied the interface between technology and children. She says it is where we see the effects of technological changes expressed most dramatically. She has interviewed hundreds of children who feel the brunt of these changes on two fronts.

One, is that parents are so wrapped up in their smart phones and e-mail that they forget to parent. Children are feeling the need to compete with technology for their parents’ attention, and as Turkle points out, “That’s not really what we had in mind.”

The other challenge for children is that they are growing up to believe that true friendship occurs on Facebook or through texting. They are missing what Turkle calls the “complicated, messy, demanding, tonal” experience of face-to-face conversation, which she considers the “bedrock” for psychological development. Children who are not exposed to the awkward and complex nature of raw human interaction will have a “tin ear” for the nuances that make up personal relationships.

“For what purpose?” Turkle asks. “So we can be on Facebook more? Having conversations with other people is where we learn to have conversations with ourselves. We are losing opportunities for self- reflection.”

Sometimes that crucial introspection comes at the most mundane points of our days, when things get quiet and the world moves slowly. But we tolerate fewer and fewer of such moments as the number of available screens and “friends” increases exponentially.

Turkle notes that there are “a lot of boring bits” that make up a life or a social movement, and whether we decide to accept them or walk away from them will tell us something about our commitments. Giving a “thumbs up” on Facebook, she adds, is not an authentic commitment that generates real change in the world.

The boring bits of life are still worked out painstakingly, she says: “Tremendously important policies and the shape of this country are being decided in very traditional ways. There is a sense that you have an option to opt out of that, but you don’t.”