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“I Share, Therefore I Am”

<hnology as evocative objects” -- that was the title of Sherry Turkle’s convocation talk last Friday. Her thesis: people are lonely, but afraid of social intimacy. A professor of social sciences and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Turkle studies the influence of modern technologies on our relationships.

In examining the psychological changes prompted by our massive reliance on devices and the internet, she highlighted many of the ways in which technology is changing how people relate to one another and construct their own inner lives.

“‘Technology is just a tool,’” she said, paraphrasing her colleagues at MIT who had tried to dissuade her from her thesis. “I disagreed with the ‘just’ part: as a tool, it gets into our heads and changes both our minds and our hearts.” She hoped that her talk would help encourage her listeners to “use technology and bring philosophy into every day conversations,” including ethical ones such as “Can one love a robot?”

Turkle also told a lot of anecdotes from her own life. Those of MIT students texting in her classroom and lamenting that they “couldn’t have real conversations.” Conversations with her colleagues regarding the dilemma of online learning. To Turkle, it was true that technology “provides faster and cheaper methods of teaching,” but she disagreed that they were necessarily better. After all, she asked, “how do we measure better methods?”

Her favorite story concerned an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, when she realized she had forgotten her iPhone. “I was upset and in a panic; I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was missing,” she said. Her point was that today we are compelled to always be connected, to have “every detail and every schedule and every appointment with us at any one time.” Away from our electronic devices, we start to get uncomfortable.

She also evoked recent developments like Apple’s speech-enabled SIRI technology, pointing out that now electronic devices can talk about human behavior without actually knowing anything about it. This “pretending” bothers her because it allows us to get closer to machines and simultaneously distance ourselves from one another.

“All around you, you are going to see machines that will pretend to feel or think,” she noted, “and thus people are growing up in this radically different environment.” Kids are seeing their parents text at the dinner table –- a major no-no in her book.

Turkle emphasized the psychological appeal of technology using the case study of Tamagotchis. The devices provided a sense of control in allowing players to nurture and customize their own digital pet, and were constantly reliable in terms of responding to our attention – perhaps more so than other people.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved, and we’re turning to technology for the answer,” Turkle argued. She highlighted the importance of solitude, which she crucially distinguished from the panic and anxiety of loneliness. In her opinion, genuine solitude entails rejuvenation that constant connection cannot provide. Turkle also did well in pointing out what makes texting and electronic conversation so appealing: it’s all in the ability to edit, delete, and retouch. You get a sense of control over what is associated with you.

“Technology allows us to clean up the messiness of human relationships, which is why we expect so much from [devices].”

Yet perhaps those people lining up for the latest Apple product were satisfying a far different urge — that is, getting their hands on the latest and greatest device? The possibility possibility seemed something too crucial for Turkle to leave out, considering she was studying human psychology and how technology affects it.

Turkle was right in pointing out that the more Facebook friends and Twitter followers you have, the greater capacity you have for meaningful human interactions.

At the same time she made sure not to disparage the benefits of technology – especially given the timely interruption from her iPhone stopwatch. Turkle’s goal to promote conversation certainly didn’t go unheard; as her audience filtered out they shared their thoughts and opinions with one another as well as with their online community.

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