What I am Reading

Vicky Kelman

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other

by Sherry Turkle

Vicky Kelman” I-Thou” is considered the ideal relationship that two people can strive to have. But can we establish or maintain an I- Thou relationship that’s channelled through a “device?”. Can we be in such a relationship when we rarely if ever look into each other’s eyes?

Have we actually atoned when we’ve confessed our sins on-line over an animated goat ? Can you sit in the doctor’s waiting room or stand on-line in the market or sit on a bus or subway or wait for a meeting to begin and NOT look at your hand-held device? How long can you hold out?

How many news reports (or ads perhaps) have you seen in which a school’s claim to fame is that every kid (including kindergartners and sometimes Pre-schoolers) will have an iPad? is this now the hallmark of a “good school?”

I stopped to watch a kids’ soccer game in a local park and heard a coach say to the kids on the sidelines, waiting for their chance to sub in, “Hey — put away that iPhone. It’ s not phone time, it’s game time.”

Alone Together CoverSherry Turkle wants us to be wary, very wary, of jumping in to the rapidly flowing river of technology…at least without fair warning of the rapids and hidden whirlpools that lie ahead and can easily carry us off to a destination not of our choosing.

She is concerned that without realizing it, our growing reliance on technology and our growing faith in it, are shaping our modes of relating to one another in ways we should be thinking about and evaluating before we are “all in.”

In the first part of her book Turkle examines the world of robots, with special attention to those designed to be friends, companions, pets or helpers to humans. The second part of the book is devoted to a consideration of what she calls “the tethered self,” our constant state of connectivity to our hand-held devices. Different as these modes of technology are from one another, Turkle raises serious concerns that they both undermine the ability to build and grow the social skills that have always connected people one to the other in the ways we would describe as “I-Thou.”

She writes that from her extensive observation , when children grow up with “sociable robots,” such as Tamagotchies (remember them? ) Furbies and such, they learn to be content with “relationships with less.” They are shaped by and satisfied by relationships that are completely uni-directional. They learn to care for these “pets” and specifically mention valuing the fact that the Furby is first of all, theirs alone, but second of all, never distracted by other people or other things going on. It is the undivided and unrivaled attention that is cherished.

When she examined the type of helpful robot that might help care for people with limited mobility or in need of more physical care, she found that people using them often remarked that they found them to be more reliable than the people in their lives.

Children have always competed for their parents’ attention, but this generation has experienced something new. Previously, children had to deal with parents being off with work, friends or each other. Whereas today, children contend with parents who are physically close, tantalizingly so, but mentally elsewhere….Longed for here is the pleasure of full attention, coveted and rare. These teenagers grew up with parents who talked on their cell phones and scrolled their messages as they walked to the playground. Parents texted with one hand and pushed swings with the other. They glanced up at the jungle gym as they made calls.” (ch 14)

Turkle is disturbed (as we should be) by the threads connecting these two categories: both the kids and the rehab patients crave connection- and in the absence of consistent attention, the robots provide it. But is it real connection?

In studying young people and young adults’ “tethered” state, she finds the source in this craving for attention and connection. These are kids who have never had their parents’ (or friends’) full attention which, in turn, sets a low bar for their expectations of others. In the realm of relationships, they are satisfied with less.

Turkle writes, “We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each other’s full attention.” (conclusion) When I text you or IM you what else are you doing at the same time?

We have instant audiences but flatten out what we say to each other in new reductionist genres of abbreviation.” (conclusion). How few actual words and how many abbreviations can we use. E-mail is already almost passé in some quarters. Too many words. Too slow.

Moving along this continuum– Many of the young adults she has interviewed view conversation as intrusive and too time-consuming. “Face to face conversations happen way less.[even] A phone call asks too much…it promises more than I am willing to deliver.( ch 10)

So — why is this the book I choose to bring to your attention?

I’d like to offer a few of the questions that this book sparked for me that I think are at the heart of the enterprise we call Jewish life in America today.

Are the kids we raise and teach and guide developing the people skills to build real relationships? Can they amuse themselves without a screen in hand? Do they Daydream? Can they carry on a conversation ? Are they able to engage in a soccer game from the sidelines, while their teammates are playing and they are waiting for their chance to play? (When you think about it, there is actually a lot to do.)

Are the families we work with thinking “technology: the more the better” and ” yay for ipads!” thrilled that their kids are ” digital natives,” or are they reflecting on the dangers of the current of technology to carry their family away. Should it be part of our role to kick-start the conversation for parents, guiding them to reflect and make wise choices in the interest of strengthening their families and to consider about the kind of “tethered,” distracted or multi- tasking relationship model they provide their kids. Can we help them create technology-free spaces (physical and or temporal) within which real I -Thou relationships can flourish?

We hear a lot about “building community in the classroom.”. Do our students cross our thresholds with the people skills to participate in building community or do we need to figure out how to “retrofit” them? Can they listen and respond in ways that show they can value a peer as a source of ideas and information? Can they relate in the I -Thou ways that will connect them to peers?

Do our campers (and their counselors) arrive at camp able to build friendships and teams and communities or should we be building in some “remedial” activities for them as warm-ups for life in a residential community? Is being a Facebook Friend sufficient preparation for being a friend?

These are my concerns as we contemplate the Jewish future. You can ponder these questions whether or not you read the book. But– read the book!

In a New Yorker article about two years ago, Adam Gopnick once described people as falling into one of two groups in terms of their attitude toward technology: the “never betters” (all the new modes of social connectivity are a huge plus for our daily lives ) and the “better nevers” (we were better off without all this stuff).

I am not a “better never.” I love the help technology can supply in building community, as long as it’s not mistaken for community itself. When I get an email (or link to a website) that enables me to bring a meal to a fellow-congregant, or notifies me of time and place for a shiva minyan, I feel like it helps me build my community. When I see kids using messaging or emailing to maintain connections with their friends from camp and college students in touch with their friends from their year in Israel… I appreciate role of technology in scaffolding community . But at its heart, to be and remain strong, that community must be made up of people with who do the face-to-face work of I-Thou, too.

More Resources? Check out Common Sense media.