Ah, the Internet. The once magnificent and glorious tool has transformed from being a fast-paced information highway to that place where we all admit, rather begrudgingly, that we spend too much time on. Alone. We love the immediate answers, the idea of relying on Google as one aspect of our “external brain”. We crave instant gratification. We make important decisions (such as impulse buys) without a second thought. We are turning into Internet speed fiends, and we are doing it alone.
Last week Sherry Turkle spoke at TED 2012. I missed it because I was on the road with a few friends, off to spend time in the woods away from the Internet. But somehow, on the car ride up, I found myself checking Twitter like a fiend. Even though I was in the car with two very live human beings, both of whom I like, even, I had to get my information fix. I caught wind of Sherry’s TED talk, and shortly afterwards I closed Twitter for the weekend to try and think a bit, self-reflect. What does it mean to truly be alone?
Before Turkle stepped on stage to give her presentation, she received a text from her daughter. Typical. After “in person” time, teens’ second favorite mode of communication is texting, and then talking on the phone. Like most moms, Turkle was quite pleased to receive the text, which said “Mom, you will rock.” She said that receiving this text was “like getting a hug.” So now, a text message holds the same value as a hug? How did we start substituting human contact with (most likely) auto-corrected words on a smartphone screen?
Turkle is concerned. But it wasn’t always like this. In 1996, her first TEDTalk was quite the opposite, aptly titled “Celebrating our life on the Internet.” How would the Internet change our lives for the better? Her new book, Alone Together, is not at all celebratory. It expresses Turkle’s deep-seated fears that we are letting technology “take us places we don’t want to go.” She concludes the following: “The little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t eve change what we do, they change who we are.”
Texting while talking has become second nature. In fact, it’s not strange to take a smartphone into the bathroom. A total 75% of American smartphone owners use their phones in the bathroom; 91% of Gen-Ys are also using their phones in the bathroom. Even the Silent Generation uses their phones while in the bathroom; 47% of them do, anyway. Turkle points out the importance of making eye contact while texting, saying that “it’s hard but it can be done.” But that can’t be done if you’re in the bathroom, alone.
Turkle says that this constant digital interaction actually lessens our ability to self-reflect. It all comes back to the fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as do many narratives in American culture. Turkle describes this alone togetherness, calling it the Goldilocks Effect: “People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere,” says Turkle. “People want to control exactly the amount of attention they give others, not too much, not too little.”
What are we doing to encourage this type of behavior? Through text messages, social networks and emails, however, we learn to edit ourselves. We do not have to reveal as much as we do in-person or via phone. We don’t have to feel as vulnerable, knowing that there is always a screen to hide behind. Actual real relationships with others are far more complex than that, however.
“Human relationships are rich, and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” says Turkle. “And we clean them up with technology. We sacrifice conversation for mere connection.”
The illusions of “friendship without the demands of companionship,” as Turkle describes, offer us three types of fantasies: We’ll have attention everywhere, we’ll always be heard and we’ll never have to be alone. In other words, we feel less compelled to reach out and make an active connection.
Just like Facebook has redefined the idea of a “friend” – a passive connection with someone you may or may not know in real life, who you will become Facebook friends with and broadcast information to (if the news feed decides that it should be so) – it has also redefined “sharing.”
At once an active act – I share my bread with you, neighbor – it is now passive. Sharing means posting information and wondering if others will “discover” it. Sharing is like the offline equivalent of dropping a flier on a corner newsstand and hoping someone will see it, at some point. And nowadays, the idea is “I share, therefore I am.” Or, “I share therefore I am…an online identity.”
How to Be Alone
In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks strolls into the bears’ home, eats the porridge, sleeps in the bears’ beds, and then runs away.
Turkle’s talk may have fairytale references, but this isn’t how it ends.
There is something we can do to relearn how to be alone, not together. It starts with parents teaching their kids the importance of solitude. Then, she suggests, make spaces in the house that are for being alone. And most importantly, she says, listen to everything – even the boring filler-type stuff.
“When we stumble or hesitate or lose our words,” says Turkle, “we reveal ourselves to each other.”
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.