- Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
With The Second Self and Life on the Screen, this volume completes a trilogy on human-computer relations and on new definitions of the human self in the computer age. It would be interesting for historians to see how the main arguments of each book have shifted along with the technological phases of computer development and its diffusion. Sherry Turkle’s first book, “full of hope and optimism,” in 1984 “focused on how evocative computers fostered new reflection about the self” (p. xi). The second book, published in 1995, looked into the online connections among people. In this new volume, Turkle deals with sociable robots, robotic pets, and online communications with others (including bots—inanimate entities), and looks deeply into human solitude in a contemporary society. Just as the author’s long years of observation enable her to compare “new technology” with pioneer cases in the past, readers may find her trilogy itself has historical value as a record of changes in how we see computers.
Part 1 of Alone Together deals with “caring robots” for which people have some feelings. Most of these cases involve robot pets that interact with lonely elderly people, who then became attached to the pets. This section is full of well-told stories that illustrate how people actually act with and feel about those robots. It is convincingly presented and accessible and so is most likely to be of interest to the general reader. For scholars, chapter 7 on “Communion” is the most valuable in part 1, as Turkle puts the human-robot interaction into the realm of philosophical questions about mind and body. Referring to Emmanuel Levinas, she points out that “the robotic face signals the presence of a self that can recognize another. It puts us in a landscape where we seek recognition. This is not about a robot’s being able to recognize us. It is about our desire to have it do so” (p. 137).
As a Japanese person, it seemed to me that the author treated some near-extreme examples from Japan as representative, when actually, caring robots are still cutting-edge and could be bizarre to ordinary people, even in Japan. It is true that Japanese roboticists are very productive at this cutting edge, as the author notes, but it may be fruitful to conduct more empirical research in Japan for comparison, and to refer to existing Japanese literature on this subject.
In part 2, the author deals with nonstop online connection, which can make teenagers reluctant to communicate with each other directly. As in part 1, she uses interviews and empirical observations to describe our “experience of living full-time on the Net, newly free in some ways, newly yoked in others” (p. 152). She compares this experience to the early MIT [End Page 960] experiments of the mid-1990s in being a cyborg, carrying computers and connections all the time, noting that “We are all cyborgs now” (p. 152). In contrast to part 1, in part 2 people communicate with each other or with inanimate figures all the time, and as a result suffer from fears of separation or disconnection and have to deal with new privacy issues.
In conclusion, the author still thinks “we are not stuck” (p. 295), and “no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment” (p. 296). There are benefits to being alone and benefits to being together, but there is a price to pay for being “alone together.” This book is well worth reading for historians who want to understand what it means that computing is now pervasive rather than novel. Given this pervasiveness, another researcher starting fresh today might not adopt the same methods as Turkle’s, perhaps shifting more toward quantitative or demographic methods. But Turkle’s qualitative research is voluminous and her findings compelling. [End Page 961]