Communication is a vital part of human behaviour and, indeed, our experience of life. We need to communicate with other human beings to feel complete and to help us understand ourselves. It is all too easy to feel lost within this world, but often this can be resolved by confirming your place in it through interaction with another person. We developed the capacity to speak, most likely for the purpose of understanding each other more thoroughly and with more efficiency. Comfort and security can be felt in the presence of another and discussing our experiences with others help us to develop a greater understanding of the world. However, in today’s hectic modern world we have, in an attempt to become more connected, lost that vital connection with each other. Technology is ever advancing and it seems as though we contain a world in our pocket in the form of a smart phone. Such useful little devices, we are constantly connected, merely a click away from unlimited information and total connectivity.
Texting, email, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter. These have become commonplace in many of our lives to the point where few of us can go a day without checking our email or posting a new status. Online communications developed with the promise of better connecting with each other, regardless of where we were in the world.
“Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be assessed – and only for the parts we find useful, comforting or amusing.”
Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. p.154
In her book, Sherry Turkle explores how technological developments have enabled us constant connectivity, yet we have become more withdrawn, turning to a virtual, online-world as a means of communication, moving further away from our ancestors’ desire to understand each other better through voice, body language and expression. Have emoticons made these redundant?
“I once described the computer as a second self, a mirror of mind. Now the metaphor no longer goes far enough. Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.
Teenagers tell me they sleep with their cell phone, and even when it isn’t on their person, when it has been banished to the school locker, for instance, they know when their phone is vibrating. The technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them.”
Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. pp. 16-17
The extreme need to always be connected, to have an online presence. This “phantom limb” idea is very interesting; mobile phones have become like an extension to your person, something always in hand. Like a parasite that has attached itself to your hand, yet you constantly feed it, forever checking for the next Facebook update, the newest email, even when it hasn’t buzzed in alert. We need the next fix of online activity like a drug.
Roboticists are hoping that one day robots will care for our children and elderly – what does that make us? Will we be too wrapped up in our virtual lives online that we have no time to care for our own family members? Will we shirk this responsibility onto robots? In Alone Together Turkle recounts her experiences of studying sociable robots placed in care homes for the elderly and it is clear that she is distressed with what she sees. Despite the fact that people can care for the elderly, so many of us are open to the idea of using robots as substitutes or even as main care providers. We acknowledge that we are able to provide care but that we would rather be saved the bother, and if robots are a way to do that then why shouldn’t we use them? It is a complicated debate, one that Turkle looks into in depth and I found myself conflicted. Yes it would be beneficial to have sociable robots that could effectively give care to the elderly and provide companionship, but they will always just be robots. They can give care without caring. They lack emotions and the ability to understand human emotion and experience. They may create the illusion of companionship, but really the old man or woman, seeking to alleviate their loneliness in any way possible, would be just as alone. Being alone is not altogether a bad thing, but loneliness is, and we all crave the company of another person. Don’t we all deserve to interact with another, real, human? Wouldn’t using robots deny us this? Isn’t it just the same as saying you aren’t worthy of the attention of another human being, but you can have this machine?
Roujin Z (1991), an anime directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo and written by Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo paints a grim picture of the not-too-distant future in which we entrust the care of the elderly completely to machines. The film spirals into chaos as the machine runs amok, but it does raise issues that relate to Turkle’s ideas on robot care-givers, and how we could end up dehumanising the elderly in the process. Too focused on giving the ‘best’ care, we lose our connection with the person.
Summer Wars, 2009, dir. Mamoru Hosoda
Our online avatars represent all parts of our lives, business operate online, banks, healthcare, fire service. Everything has an online presence and everyone is connected through OZ (the online massive computer-simulated virtual reality world). The concept of the film can seem a bit far-fetched, but the concept of OZ and of this level of online investment within our lives, to the point that all aspects of our lives have a place on this online world, is perhaps an accurate vision of the near future. The film itself doesn’t speak out against having an intense online presence, but does raise issues and ideas that make the audience think for themselves about what if our lives will soon be similar to those of the characters in Summer Wars.
I walked into my kitchen one evening and three of my flatmates were sitting side-by-side on the chairs, in silence, completely focused on their mobile phones. I jokingly asked if they were texting each other, to which they smiled and then continued to text away. In silence.
So many times you see groups of people, whom you would naturally associate as a group of friends, yet their interaction seems to rely entirely on being in close proximation to each other as they are all engrossed in their individual device, attending to their online life while their real world one passes them by.
“When part of your life is lived in virtual places – it can be SecondLife, a computer game, a social networking site – a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is “true here,” true in simulation. In games where we expect to play an avatar, we end up being ourselves in the most revealing ways; on social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else – often the fantasy of who we want to be. Distinctions blur. Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We don’t count on cyberfriends to come by if we are ill, to celebrate our children’s successes, or help us mourn the death of our parents. People know this, and yet the emotional charge on cyberspace is high. People talk about digital life as a “place for hope,” the place where something new will come to them. In the past, one waited for the sound of the post – by carriage, by foot, by truck. Now, when there is a lull, we check our e-mails, texts, and messages.”
Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. p.153
Myself, I try to keep a distance from Facebook, often finding it dull; a status stating some mediocre update on their daily routine, too often ending with a “#yolo” which never fails to make me cringe. (Indeed I am yet to understand using hashtags on Facebook as, unlike Twitter or Tumblr, the social networking site does not support tagging, so it is merely pointless “text-speak” with little meaning, other than, it often seems, to make an uninteresting status sound more exciting – a “how to” on making your life sound more exciting than it really is). More often than not, my reasons for checking Facebook is related to university; announcements, news etc. Rarely do I go on to be social, unless, for example, an event is being organised with friends and it is easier to plan online. It has got to the point that, at the times when I am on “for business”, it can be an inconvenience for someone to strike up an instant message chat.
“7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook”, The Huffington Post, October 2013
Some people avoid Facebook due to concerns of safety, I believe myself intelligent enough to recognize danger online and do something about it, so my reasons for limiting my online activity is more due to privacy: why would I want 800 people reading about my life on Facebook? The term “friends” has become devalued since its usage in social-networking sites. Friends are not people who care about your life, although they may now all that happens in it, or indeed, what you let them know. They read about your achievements and failures with the same passive indifference. Information about our daily lives has become mere data for our cyberfriends to consume, without emotion or empathy. It used to be that knowledge was priceless, something learned, handed down with great care, something to value above all else. Now all we need do to find answers is type it into google or ask Siri. Immediate access to knowledge has devalued it, has made intelligence lack importance. If you impart some knowledge onto another they receive it all too often with derision and the accusation “you Googled that.” And so what if I did? Does the source of information make it any less interesting. Is the importance of knowledge lost when anyone can access it at any time through their mobile phone? Today it seems like the access to knowledge is more important than knowledge itself. “Why should I learn this? I can just look it up if I need to know it.” We need to rediscover the value of knowledge for ourselves, before it loses all power.
“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 the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”
Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. p.1
Two videos related to Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together:
An informative and powerful short film regarding human interaction, loneliness and social networking, The Innovation of Loneliness
“What is the connection between Social Networks and Being Lonely?
Inspired and Based on the wonderful book by Sherry Turkle – Alone Together.
Also Based on Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburgers hebrew article -The Invention of Being Lonely. Script, Design & Animation: Shimi Cohen. Final Project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.”
“I’m still excited by technology but I believe… that we’re letting it take us places that we don’t want to go.” (Turkle)