‘Alone Together’ is an interesting read from Sherry Turkle. I’m not sure why I picked it up as there is often a gap between when I buy or borrow a book and when I get around to reading it. I always have such a backlog of things I want to read. I suspect it had something to do with the subtitle, ‘Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.’ This is a subject that appeals to me.
The book wasn’t what I was expecting, though it was a good read. It gave a fairly dystopic view of the seemingly inexorable rise of communications technology and our fetishistic approach to it. The author questions whether it us that is using the technology or if it is the technology that is making use of us. The book is filled with examples of people looking for something from their phones and laptops that they cannot get from their fellow humanity. It is tinged with sadness and filled me with dread at a possible future where human touch and interaction is replaced with cold, mechanistic alternatives and where the gamut of human emotion is imitated by machine code and algorithms.
The book is a few years old now. It was first published in 2011 and in internet terms that seems like a lifetime away, a period in which the technology has changed, improved or deteriorated depending upon your position.
For me though the rise of technology is not a binary problem. The tools at our disposal and the use we make of them are neither bad nor good. They are both. They just are. Humans have been adapting to new technology since the first flint axe was formed. Every new invention has resulted in concerns about its misuse and the effect it will have upon society.
I coined the phrase nowstalgia to mean a yearning for a time that never really existed and this is a common approach to the new. People hark back to a time when things were easier, relationships were better and society was more effective. Of course none of this is true. The past is both different yet the same as the present.
The end of the book though left me with hope. Turkle tells a story about a rabbi’s sermon in which he addresses the importance of talking to the dead. These are things that machines cannot mean: I am sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you. This is what makes us human, over time, over distance.