Sherry Turkle: Can You Hear Me Now?

Sherry Turkle has an excellent essay in Forbes about the alienating consequences of the digital revolution. (She gave a related talk for the McLuhan Lecture at NYU a few months ago). Her thesis is that “Thanks to technology, people have never been more connected–or more alienated”:

We live in techno-enthusiastic times, and we are most likely to celebrate our gadgets. Certainly the advertising that sells us our devices has us working from beautiful, remote locations that signal our status. We are connected, tethered, so important that our physical presence is no longer required. There is much talk of new efficiencies; we can work from anywhere and all the time. But tethered life is complex; it is helpful to measure our thrilling new networks against what they may be doing to us as people.

Turkle goes on to outline five “troubles that try my tethered soul” (excerpted, numbered, and bolded by me):

[1] Since the late 1990s social computing has offered an opportunity to experiment with a virtual second self. Now this metaphor doesn’t go far enough. Our new online intimacies create a world in which it makes sense to speak of a new state of the self, itself. “I am on my cell … online … instant messaging … on the Web”–these phrases suggest a new placement of the subject, wired into society through technology.

[2] We live a contradiction: Insisting that our world is increasingly complex, we nevertheless have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think, uninterrupted. We are primed to receive a quick message to which we are expected to give a rapid response. Children growing up with this may never know another way. Their experience raises a question for us all: Are we leaving enough time to take our time on the things that matter?

[3] We communicate with instant messages, “check-in” cell calls and emoticons. All of these are meant to quickly communicate a state. They are not intended to open a dialogue about complexity of feeling. (Technological determinism has its place here: Cell calls get poor reception, are easily dropped and are optimized for texting.) The culture that grows up around the cell phone is a communications culture, but it is not necessarily a culture of self-reflection–which depends on having an emotion, experiencing it, sometimes electing to share it with another person, thinking about it differently over time.

[4] We have become virtuosos of self-presentation, accustomed to living our lives in public. The idea that “we’re all being observed all the time anyway, so who needs privacy?” has become a commonplace. Put another way, people say, “As long as I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares who’s watching me?” This state of mind leaves us vulnerable to political abuse. …High school and college students give up their privacy on MySpace about everything from musical preferences to sexual hang-ups. They are not likely to be troubled by an anonymous government agency knowing whom they call or what Web sites they frequent. People become gratified by a certain public exposure; it is more validation than violation.

[5] Might such…arrangements…be bad for us in our lives as moral beings? The answer does not depend on what computers can do today or what they are likely to be able to do in the future. It hangs on the question of what we will be like, what kind of people we are becoming as we develop very intimate relationships with our machines.

In all, Turkle describes well the technological dystopia – “virtuality and its discontents” – the lies in wait given our apparent Faustian bargain with the newest wave of information and communication technologies.


  1. Ehh … This is the sort of stuff which makes me pine for support for what I call “technology-positive social criticism”. It strikes me as lots of “Society is going to hell in a handbasket! What’s the matter with kids today!”

    #1 Bah, humbug. So much spun out of prepositions. “I’m on the telephone” is decades old. “I’m in the shower” doesn’t portend a weighty transportation of the self versus “I’m taking a bath”.

    #2 Yeah, but blame capitalism, not cell-phones and email.

    #3 Time for self-reflection is a huge luxury. Most people aren’t academics. Heck, most people barely get by, period.

    #4 Seems to be flat-out wrong, empirically – I understand the argument, “OH MY GOD, we’re training kids to accept TOTALITARIANISM!”. But people in the US seem to make very hard mental walls between business=good, government=bad. More so than rational, in fact. Which is arguably the real problem.

    #5 Well, I think pacemakers and hearing aids and insulin pumps and dental tooth implants and eye lens replacement, are great, and I have no worries that one becomes less than human thereof due to having technological parts in oneself (note – I know this might seem to be a misunderstanding, but I mean it as subtlety).

  2. Seth,
    I think tooth implants, pacemakers blend into the body, fall within the rythm of everyday life but blackberries are intrusive objects (people ring you, loud ring tones) which take precedence over real place. People don\\\\\\\’t usually ignore phone calls, the waiting emails, the unopened letters …the virtual takes precedent over the real/ the private over the public .


  3. Hi Seth:

    1: While yes, the “evolution” from the bath to the shower really isn’t that self-transorming, the technologies Turkle addresses (cellphones, IMs, Blackberries, etc,) deal much more with communicating and mediating the “self” – and I’d argue represent a significant shift from previous forms (telephone, telegraph). Its not just bath-to-shower, but more like bath-to-being able to shower anytime, anywhere, with almost anyone.

    2: Blaming capitalism is (a) an easy cop-out, and (b) missing the point since it IS capitalism that has pilfered these technologies onto society.

    3: You’re putting “self-reflection” on some kind of pedestal that it doesn’t deserve/need. I don’t think she’s meaning that everyone needs to have the time/ability to spend a day hiking through Muir Woods or strolling along the beach in order to find themselves – just those simple moments of un-mediated calmness and the ability to ponder meaningful communication & interactions.

    4: I’m not sure what empirical evidence you’re referring to, but I think the clear problem IS that people equate corporate use of personal data as good (and gov’t as bad). That’s the key concern here, that people willingly give their data to corporations without second thought, and many of these tools/platforms facilitate that.

    5: Your subtlety is correct, and I hope Turkle is not being totalizing in her assessment here (her point is likely stemming mostly from her research on robotic companions)

  4. I was at this lecture myself, and I don’t remember being point #5 being quite what you wrote… I’d add that I think she said something more like “What is the purpose and role of human life in this world?” Morals are tied to this question, yes, but I think the “living” element of this should not be ignored.

    Any idea if the lecture’s been archived someplace?

  5. Gus: The point #5 above is from the Forbes article, and you might be right regarding a different nuance during the lecture itself – I can’t remember anymore. I’ll see if anyone from NYU recorded her talk.

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