Book Review: Dr. Sherry Turkle’s ‘Alone Together’ (Basic Books)

MIT’s Dr. Sherry Turkle’s ALONE TOGETHER (Basic Books, 2010) is must reading for anyone who has a cell phone; and a must MUST if you also have a child.

This distinguished full professor at MIT has been skillfully watching fascinating developments unfold for almost two decades. As a captivating writer, Dr. Turkle again provides superbly stimulating food for thought about the social / psychological dimensions of where our chaotic technology consumption may be taking us.

Cybercrime, sexting, gaming, cyberbullying, multitasking, endless power struggles with our teens, and other sensational happenings that are capturing our attention are but tips of an iceberg. Ironically, with scant awareness, or with a sense of helplessness, we seem to be eager to use the tools we had invented even though we know so little about how they change the very essences of our messages and our relationships.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a first rate thinker, veteran researcher, and keen observer, surprises us with how thoroughly and rapidly the evolving human-machine interface is changing our lives. As a captivating writer, Dr. Turkle again provides superbly stimulating food for thought about the social / psychological dimensions of where our chaotic technology consumption may be taking us.

I have not had the honor of meeting Professor Turkle personally, but, as I was doing my own clinical research and preparing my own book (Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families,, I found her to be one of the most important and sensible scholars in the human / technology space.

Professor Turkle shares her lifetime’s worth of observations, discoveries, and theories with us. Fully human, she brings the discerning eye of a scientist, the lenses of a brilliant disciplined mind, the heart of a down-to-earth, decent, caring mother, and the compassion of a humane healer. Her work continues to illuminate the darker recesses of the space formed at the intersection of interactive technology, neuroscience, morality, and human development. The relevance of her work extends to all human interactions with interactive digital media.

Dr. Turkle’s findings suggest that some major fundamental human brain / mind processes that underlie our uniquely human feeling, thinking, and social interactions have been shifting in subtle but powerful ways. I found the book excellent, at times dense, and always a page turner. And, from what Dr. Turkle describes so skillfully about her findings, we all should now be at least curious, if not concerned about being in a ‘robot moment.’

In the lofty chambers of academia, ‘social robots’ (made to resemble living creatures) turn their heads to ‘look’ at people who walk across the room. In spite of themselves, intelligent, aware, and careful MIT scientists who produce and ‘educate’ these embodied machines are easily seduced by such non-verbal signals into emotionally mistaking the machines for living creatures. Uncannily, even super-rational MIT scholars, despite their traditional impatience with how others anthropomorphize and project feelings onto their machines, now themselves develop feelings about robots, as if they were in a relationship with a living creature. This is BIG: Just because we have been anticipating them for centuries (at least since the 270 A.D. Golem), let us not be too casual now that they are actually here.

Down closer to earth, in our everyday lives, we too have become insidiously tethered and ‘addicted’. Dr. Turkle suggests that, like the youngsters and oldsters she has studied, we are all vulnerable to becoming attached to robots, in our present case to the many disembodied robots that run our interactive devices. Dr. Turkle reminds us that ever-more fully embodied robots, the humanoids, are already on their way.

We are still attached to people, but are increasingly interacting via the mediation of disembodied robots. Sadly, we end up treating each other shabbily as these devices also lead us to willingly chop up and squeeze the richness of our nuanced and felt human connections with each other into small, thin, narrow-bandwidth data trickles. Then we feel desperately compelled to keep this thin channel open. No, wonder — it’s hard to feel a good hug through a straw.

We are now discovering that, given free rein, even as we intend them to improve our connections with one another, and to many extents they do, using these tools often actually fragments communication and can be harmful to us. It is also often easier to anonymously mistreat each other and ourselves. Our beloved devices filter too much out, and their use is dumbing down our kids and weakening our family lives. In addition, we now seem so attached to the devices themselves that we are scaring ourselves by just how out of control we can be. All of this is happening so fast in a caldron bubbling with change.

Clearly, Dr. Turkle is reporting about a malignant process we barely understand that has emerged quietly and is now sneaking up on us.

How hazardous is it?

We will react strongly to Dr. Turkle’s findings, as well we should because technology is here to stay with profound evocative psychological and philosophical challenges. Dr. Turkle’s are necessary brilliant first steps. But the progress of science is careful when it comes to creating certainty, so it meanders through theories to observational studies to replication, to (sometimes endless) debate, through more research…and finally, to accepted explanations.

In a way, there really is only a little new under the sun: adopting major new technologies (bronze tools, printing press, cotton gin, automobile, TV, atomic fusion, etc.) is a process that does indeed inevitably change each new user, families, and society profoundly and, eventually, the very course of history. Maybe what is new today is that the rapidity of change is cataclysmic, and now we have a front row seat in real time (thanks to some of those disembodied robots.) And maybe we can now hope to influence the course of this IT revolution directly, when it is still young.

People have always been social creatures who have needed each other. Our brains evolved way ahead of others to enable rich complexities and nuances of attachments, empathy, and self-awareness. Humans have always been plugged in — connected to one another through our senses and minds and bodies — with what resemble broadband ‘social synapses’. An ‘addiction’ to broadband human connections (best across all the senses together — face to face, skin to skin, cheek to cheek…) is hard-wired into us from birth. Making possible our survival as a species, these broad and deep channels carry a wealth of highly choreographed uniquely human information among us.

Children always have and always will need good family relationships, values, education, and parents’ full love and presence to develop into human creatures with healthy brains and minds. Children are programmed to form broad-band social synapses, primarily with parents, that feed them the rich data that organizes and shapes their brains and fullest humanness. We do not know how their development is ultimately affected by increasing interactions with robots or through narrow-bandwidth devices.

In the meantime, what to do?

It is HOW we use technology that counts. So let us use it right, and we know a lot about what is right for people. The time has come for us to stop merely reacting with fear and mistrust of technology. Let’s also decide to revise our curious confusion and helplessness or blind optimism.

We need comprehensive, sensible, practical approaches based on a sound vision of where to go from here. Let’s start building on Dr. Turkle’s and other scientists’ findings and manage our technology consumption more thoughtfully, especially when it comes to children. Let us take charge and make sure we, not the media or the devices, give ultimate form to our social synapses, especially when it comes to our kids.

I believe that sometimes parents need to paddle the family canoe against the stream of popular culture, which, after all, often seeks the lowest common denominator. IMHO, after over a decade of Wild-West digital social experimentation and youth media consumption chaos, it is time for parents now to become empowered and educated and use new tools to manage the digital lives of children.

I suggest beginning in early life, using information we already know. Make the correct use of technology part of family life, not the other way around, and your babies will likely use it correctly when they become teens. Such a framework needs to be credible, practical, pro-social, developmentally-oriented and family-centered.

My own approach includes deliberate thinking about and planning a family’s technology consumption. I suggest that parents treat devices as appliances, like blenders. Change your mindset. Harvest the best interactive digital resources and present them to kids as their personalized balanced Media Plan containing age-appropriate Growth Opportunities for Family Relationships, Values Education, Education Enrichment, Socialization, and Entertainment and your full presence. Plan media consumption as you do meals and hygiene.

Decide that no interactive digital device, whether embodied or disembodied, belongs in the home where you are raising budding humans unless it enhances family life and child development. Keep the robots out of reach and turned off regularly in your home: borrowing from the traditional practice of reserving the Sabbath for restorative spirituality and reflection and affirmation of values, family, and community.

And please, please, do not rush yet to put embodied robots into kids’ cribs or playpens.

Also, in the meantime, let us support the scientists discovering new knowledge in this field. We are at the threshold of encountering great new tools, so let us learn about how they affect us and utilize them to enhance the best about us, especially in our homes where we raise our kids.

-Dr. Eitan Schwarz (, empowering and educating parents and giving them the right tools) is a practicing child psychiatrist and author of Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families. This review is from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Hardcover)

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