Sherry begins by explaining something she saw one day that changed everything she believed. She was watching an elderly patient at a hospital interacting with a robot. It looked like a baby harp seal, and it had big, cute eyelashes. It responded to her language, and cheered her up. It comforted her. The older woman had lost a child, which could explain her longing for something to hold again. It made her feel understood. Sherry couldn’t believe how well she was responding to this robot, and realized the possibilities of this robot’s application.
“I felt profoundly depressed. This was a tremendous emotional turning point in my research,” says Sherry. She is now very worried about where this is all headed, and during her TED talk “Connected, but Alone?” she described it best:
“I felt myself at the cold, dark center of a perfect storm, in which we expect more from a technology relationship than we expect from each other. I believe it is because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. We are lonely, but afraid of intimacy. We are designing social networks that help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we aren’t comfortable, and we aren’t in control. We are cheering on this emotional connection to a machine, but why are we outsourcing what defines us as people?”
When Sherry gave her TED talk the year before, however, it was like a public confessional – because the year before, she told us how amazing robots will become.
So what changed her mind?
“I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people about their plugged in lives. These little devices are so psychologically powerful, they not only change what we do, they change what we are. Some of the things we do with our devices are things we would have found odd only a few years ago. People text during company board room meetings. People have talked about the important skill of eye contact while you are texting. We even text at funerals. We remove ourselves from our grief and our revery, and go into our phones. Why does this matter? Because I think we are setting ourselves up for trouble, not only in how we relate to each other, but how we relate with ourselves. People want to be everywhere at the same time. The thing that matters most to people is control of where they put their attention.”
But what if someone is so lonely, they must resort to a device to help them feel better? Certainly there are people who would otherwise be completely isolated from the outside world without technology. Sherry understands that there are inherent benefits to these technologies, but in the future, why would we want to do that to ourselves? Why would we intentionally construct false relationships?
When we construct robots, we are changing ourselves. We must realize the needs we are serving and become aware of what these needs are. Sherry wants to hear a more articulated conversation about these human needs. “I always hear TED talks that talk about this and always end with people saying ‘we will become more human’ if we let these robots advance. I’m not so sure. Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot? She deserves to have people around, and we need to hear the stories of her life to learn from her.”
“Technology is making the bid to redefine human connection. How we care for each other and ourselves. How we determine our values and our direction. We have every opportunity ahead of us, and we have everything we need to start – each other. We have the greatest chance of success if we recognize our vulnerability; that we listen when technology says it will take something complicated and make it simpler. Our fantasies are costing us, and we need to find ways that technology can lead us back to our own lives and bodies. Lets talk about how we can use digital technology, the technology of our dreams, to make this life a life we can love.”
We must find a balance between our technologic and the personal worlds as the lines increasingly blur. Social media profiles still leave much to the imagination, yet can provide more instantaneous information about a person than an average 5 minutes of small talk. Google Glass — which allows one to share videos, text, make calls and browse the web through the user’s eye — is an emerging technology that may prove beneficial in establishing the physical and internet-based demarcations … by completely eliminating those boundaries and turning an individual into a breathing, living embodiment of the internet. You could say we are becoming the internet. Or the internet is becoming us. Whichever you choose, there is a new age of interaction upon us, and we most certainly will have our share of growing pains. Perhaps some new device like Google Glass will help people learn to truly see through each other’s eyes…But most likely, you’ll just use it to watch the Lakers game during your next dinner date.
About Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships with others, with ourselves, with it. Described as the “Margaret Mead of digital culture,” Turkle is currently focusing on the world of social media and sociable robots. In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation.
Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. But Turkle suggests that digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. She is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.