Alone together and feeling used by communication tools
My recent difficulties with social networking inspired me to read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The book's subtitle neatly captures my dissatisfaction with LinkedIn and other supposedly social media: it's very easy to click a button that creates a record in a database stating that I'm "connected" with someone, but there's a whole lot more to do if I want to form and maintain a significant and effective relationship with that person.
Turkle makes a distinction between "performance" and "friendship". In the first half of the book, "performance" refers to robotic toys that are programmed to enact rituals that children expect from conscious beings: the robots say they are happy, hungry, etc. even though they (presumably) don't experience such emotions like humans do. In the second half of the book, "performance" refers to manipulating text messages and Facebook profiles to present the desired standards of coolness, connection and caring. She believes that
sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver. It promises friendship when it can only deliver performances (p. 101).
Turkle acknowledges critics who point out that we are always performing to one degree or another, in that we craft different personae for friends, family, work, school and so on. And how does one distinguish "authenticity" from a highly sophisticated and nuanced performance anyway? Of course Turkle contends that the performances exhibited by current robots and social networking sites are hopelessly inadequate to fully capture human emotion and relationships, and I find it hard to disagree.
It is, of course, conceivable that improvements in technology will one day overcome such inadequacy. But what to do in the mean time? Turkle doesn't recommend eliminating robots and social media and, indeed, seems to be quite comfortable with handing them out by the dozen as part of her research.
For me, the answer has to be about recognising the capabilities and limitations of particular media, employing them for what they are good at and dispensing with them for what they are not. The saddest stories in Turkle's book involve people feeling psychologically or socially compelled to use some tool despite its evident incapacity to meet the person's needs. Someone whose only tool is a hammer, as the saying goes, struggles with tasks that don't involve nails.
Most of the people in Turkle's studies are young -- children or teenagers -- and it could be that they simply haven't yet learned which tools work best for which tasks. Even older people struggle with how best to use new tools. Perhaps it isn't so surprising that things go awry in these situations.
Towards the end of the book, Turkle writes about people who have realised that the tools they have been using aren't working for them, and have consequently developed strategies like scheduling one-on-one phone conversations and deleting their Facebook profiles. Some of these strategies are fairly crude, but I think they demonstrate an important (and possibly under-rated) mind-set: a determination to make technology serve one's needs in place of passive acceptance of what technology happens to be in vogue.