Cell Phone Techno-Panic: Am I Missing Something?

Sherry Truckle has a new book out, and so she’s making the rounds in interviews and articles. I’d like to know if any of our readers have read the books and can recommend them to me as genuinely interesting or just the latest techno-panic. According to an NYT article, her first book, Alone Together was “was a damning report on human relationships in the digital age.” The book focused on robots and made the case that:

When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real.

Her new book is Reclaiming Conversation, and it drops the focus on robots to talk about the lost (?) art of face-to-face conversation.

I’m skeptical.

First, as this XKCD comic illustrates, there always seems to be someone around to tell you you’re doing it wrong. No matter what “it” is. And a lot of the criticism of cell phone usage seems to fall into this category.

Then there’s the simple fact that we’re always panicking about something. And it’s not even like cell phones are the first technological innovation to threaten the art of conversation. How about, I dunno, the newspaper?

From a Liquid-State article about newspapers surviving (or not) in a digital age.

So that’s why I’m curious: has anyone read Sherry Turkle? Is there more going on? Becaus I have only read articles about her and listened to interviews of her, and in those cases the conversation never seems to go beyond the “gee, golly, phones are scary!” talking point, along with the obligatory jokes about how much the interviewer / author depends on their phone. (Isn’t the irony hilarious? No. It’s tiresome.)

It’s not that I think there are no legitimate concerns. I think there absolutely are. Technology (phones, laptops, tablets) are generally a bad idea in the classroom, and they can easily cause problems in the home. I’m not sure when I’m going to get my kids devices of some sort, but I’m planning on holding out as long as possible. (They do have an old iPad, but it was a very conscious decision to have one device they have to share, because that forces actual interaction when they decide what to watch / play together.) And I am not saying there’s no such thing as too much phone time. Yesterday I zoned out for like an hour playing Civilization Revolution 2 on my phone between 5pm and 6pm, and that was definitely sub-optimal parenting.

On the other hand, all those stories about how couples on dates ignore each other for their phones or how people create this fake version of themselves on social media for public consumption: I dunno. That’s bad, yeah, but I feel like there are some pre-existing conditions in those cases. I don’t imagine that the kind of people who can’t look away from their screen to see the person they are sharing a meal with would be hitting it out of the park without a phone. And when it comes to fake versions of ourselves: I think the underlying problem there is a society that prizes career and advancement over home and community, to the point where people habitually uproot themselves and move cross-country to find work. Doing so severs ties with family and friends and more or less obliterates the idea of a “home,” and the way folks desperately reach out for connection on social media seems like just a symptom of the underlying problem.

Now, there is one thing that does stand out to me as genuinely dangerous, and that’s this (quoting from the NYT’s descripton of Turkle’s first book again, with emphasis added):

When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real.

Sci-fi authors have been worried about the idea of people losing themselves in virtual reality pretty much since the idea existed. The starkest and most full-fleshed example comes from Dani and Etyan Kollins’ book The Unincorporated Man. Without spoiling the plot, the setup is that a rich billionaire has himself cryogenically frozen in the late 21st century. Not long after that, virtual reality really takes off, and it turns out that people are super-addicted. The result is that society completely collapses, and there are some pretty horrific vignettes of, for example, families saying goodbye to each other as the world crumbles, plugging themselves into their virtual realities, and then enjoying their last hours or days as they starve to death. By the time society recovers (and unfreezes that rich billionaire, who is the protagonist in the first book), virtual reality is strictly forbidden by legal and social taboos and there are museums to indoctrinate each rising generation about the dangers of VR.

This is just the most vivid account of the danger I’ve read, but there are other folks who–for example–think that the solution to the Fermi paradox1 is that every time societies get close to having viable space travel they also have viable virtual reality, and they invariably choose virtual reality because it offers the chance to engineer an environment specifically to scratch every last possible psychological itch a sentient being can have. If all our desires can be catered to with perfect precision, why bother with anything in the real world ever again? So, instead of the stars, every sentient race just collapses into their own solipsistic virtual paradise. (Whether this means they all die off, as in The Unincorporated Man, or just maintain a level of lonely, self-sustaining production to keep the VR lights on is unspecified.)

So don’t get me wrong: tech can be scary. There may be quite legitimate things to fear. But is Turkle one of those, or just another “something new scares me” hand-wringer?

1 thought on “Cell Phone Techno-Panic: Am I Missing Something?”

  1. Nathaniel,

    I’ve read Alone Together, and I am looking forward to her new book. I think that it is fair to say that the interviews and articles significantly distort the message she is trying to send. Only the first part of the book talks about Robots, which is really more of a background to the emerging concern of Social Media.

    The way I understand Turkle, she is not arguing against technology. She built a career developing the stuff. What I get from her first book is that each of us can choose to be more mindful of how we interact with others through technology. She calls on us to consider our motivation for posting pictures of our dinner, to step back and question whether everybody is really as AWESOME as their Facebook wall might indicate. And she encourages us to be willing to actually have conversations with our friends and family about emotion and feeling rather than sticking to 140 characters.

    I don’t get the impression that she thinks we are incapable of having conversations or that technology itself is the evil. And she is concerned that every younger generation has had to deal with some type/degree of parental failure (not every parent is as thoughtful as you are). Today the risk is that some youth will grow up never learning how to have real conversations, how to express themselves, how to listen to and understand others. And that is a real danger, from my experience–even for kids from “good” homes.

    What I like most is that Sherry Turkle invites the reader to counter these potential problems without disconnecting entirely. She provides actionable suggestions to deepen both our technologically-mediated and our real-time relationships.

    Have you listened to her TED Talk? I’m not sure that she gets to her best stuff in the TED talk, but that at least is her saying what she plans to without responding to a journalist’s slant. http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together?language=en

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