Sherry Turkle on Alone Together at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

Sherry Turkle

Cultural analyst Sherry Turkle presents on Alone Together at TEDxUIUC. Following is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Sherry Turkle on Alone Together at TEDxUIUC


Good afternoon. When I first got to MIT in 1978, Michael Dertouzos, who was the head of the laboratory for computer science held a meeting. There was a several day retreat in Endicott House Conference Center, in which he assembled the greatest minds in computer science really at the time to figure out the question of what people might want to do with what was then called home computers. The word personal computers really hadn’t come into the lexicon yet.

Now these were the first computers that you didn’t have to build. These were the first computers that you could actually buy. And these great computer scientists got together and I was invited to the meeting because I had begun my studies of computers and people. They got together and they kind of gave it their best shot. Somebody suggested the children might want to learn to program, listen to respectfully, maybe. Somebody suggested that we would want to put our address books on computers and people laughed, and said well actually paper and pencil, little books, paper was perfect for that because most people didn’t have a database, they had a couple of names and addresses so that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Some people suggested well a calendar and actually people said well no, I don’t like using the computer for my calendar. I really find the little Filofax is much better. You can flip through which is much more practical. I tell this story because I think it’s very important to know, to remember that really not that long ago, we were trying to figure out how we would keep computers busy. And you know, now we know that once we networked with each other. Once computers were our portal to being with each other, we really don’t have to worry about keeping computers busy. They keep us busy. It’s kind of as though we are their killer app.

So how does that work? We’re on our email, our games, our virtual worlds. We text each other at family dinners, while we jog, while we drive, we take our lives into our hands to do that even with our kids in the back seat of the car. We text each other at funerals, we go to the park and we push swings with one hand and we scroll through our messages with each other. Lot of my research is observing families and you know, this is what I see.

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The children who I interview say that their parents read them Harry Potter again with their right hand reading the book and the left hand scrolling through the messages on the Blackberry. Children describe that moment at school pickup. They’ll never tell you that they care but they describe that moment where they come out of school looking for that moment of eye contact and instead of that moment of eye contact with the parent who after all had shown up at school pickup that parent is looking at the iPhone, looking at the smartphone and is reading mail.

So from the moment this generation of children met technology, it was a competition and now they’ve grown up and today’s teenagers, this generation of children who’ve grown up with technology being the competition, they now have their turn to live in a culture of distraction.

And what do they tell me? They tell me that they sleep with their cell phones. They begin by saying, well I use it as an alarm clock, and then they come clean and they say well actually it’s not just because I use it as an alarm clock. They want to sleep with it just in case they get a message, or they want to communicate and then they say that even when their phones are put away — let’s say relegated to their school locker — they know when they have a message or a call, they feel that, they can tell at long distance that they have a message or a call, they say they can just sense it. Indeed adults as well as teens report that they feel their phones vibrating even when they are not. This is a well-known phenomenon, it’s called the phantom ring. It’s been reported all over.

When you take our phones away from us, we become anxious, we become impossible, really. Modern technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of us.

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So what is the arc of the story that I want to tell? Only 15 years ago looking at the early internet, I felt an incredible sense of optimism. I saw a place for identity experimentation, I called it an identity workshop, for trying out aspects of self that were hard to experiment with in the physical real and all of this happens and all of this is still wondrous.

But what I didn’t see coming, and I like to tell my students call me not prescient. What I didn’t see coming and what we have now is that mobile connectivity, that world of devices always on and always on us, would mean that we would be able to basically bail out of the physical real at anytime, to go to all of the other places and spaces that we have available to us and that we would want to.

One man I interviewed, who plays with his kids in the park while he talks to his virtual mistress on iPhone, calls it the life mix. So I guess you could say that what I’m talking about are the perils of going from multitasking to multi-lifing, the perils of the life mix.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. And these days there is no coyness about its aspiration to substitute life on the screen for the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities. And it turns out we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers for many of us, the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other, if — if we can have each other at a distance in amounts that we can control.

Think of Goldilocks, not too close, not too far, just right. Connection made to measure, that’s the new promise. The ability to hide from each other even as we are continually connected to each other. To put it too simply, we would rather text than talk. Online connections bring so many bounties. But our lives of continual connection also leave us vulnerable. Often we are too busy communicating to think. Too busy communicating to create, too busy communicating to really connect with the people we’re with in the ways that would really count. In continual contact, we’re alone together.

To paraphrase Thoreau, where do we live and what do we live for in our new tethered lives or in other words, what do we have, now that we have what we say we want, now that we have what technology makes easy? In corporations, among circles of teenage and adult friends, within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather text or send an email than talk face to face. Some who say I live my life on my Blackberry, are forthright about avoiding real-time commitment of a phone call. When you text, one young man says, you have more time to think about what you’re writing on the telephone too much might show. Here we use technology to dial down human contact and there’s that Goldilocks thing to titrate its nature and extent.

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People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people, whom they also keep at bay. And we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we’ve created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think, uninterrupted, we’ve ramped up the volume and velocity of communication but we start to expect fast answers. And yet in order to get them we ask each other simpler questions, we start to dumb down our communication, even on the most important matters. Shakespeare might have said, we are consumed with that which we are nourished by.

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