Thursday, August 11, 2011

Machine dreams -- and nightmares

In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle explores the downside of our networked lives

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Over the course of the last quarter century, Sherry Turkle of MIT has become the sociologist-cum-philosopher of human-computer relations. This inquiry began in 1984 with The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, which was published just as personal computers were entering the collective bloodstream. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet arrived in 1995, and was again ahead of the curve, talking in depth about the "Multiple User Domains" (MUDs) that we've come to know as chat rooms. Alone Together is presented as the final installment of a trilogy of what Turkle calls "the inner life of devices." It works well as a point of entry to Turkle's body of work in tracing the questions -- she's less good on answers -- raised by the advent of our digital lives. It also suggests that in some ways, she's played out the string.

Alone Together is really -- and may well have been best published as -- two books. The first is in effect an inquiry into the coming age when robots will be a practical, and, perhaps, pervasive, part of our everyday lives. As she's done all along, Turkle pays particular attention to children's toys, not only because devices like Tamogotchis and Furbies were harbingers of more sophisticated devices, but also because she's keenly aware that the technological socialization of the young will have important implications for society as a whole. But she's (now) especially attentive to the other end of the demographic spectrum: the use of robots as devices, particularly psychological devices, for the care and company of the old. At least superficially, the logic seems irresistible: machines can perform tasks more efficiently and cheaply than people, and in many cases (like that Alzheimer patients, for example), artificial care, and caring, makes sense.

Turkle, however, is deeply skeptical of this approach. She notes a kind of slippery slope logic: technological options that seems like they're better than nothing become positive goods and then inevitable. She wonders whether whether such devices will let younger generations off the hook emotionally and corrode our collective sense of humanity. And she worries that even raising such questions will increasingly fall into the realm of understandable but unrealistic, before they become simply irrelevant.

In the second half of the book, Turkle shifts her gaze away from humans' interactions with machines and instead on their mediated relations with each other. So much of her work has involved peering around corners from her perch at an elite institution at the cutting edge; here she seems immersed in the world of Blackberries, texting, Facebook, and the related phenomena that seem thoroughly embedded into contemporary life. Here her concerns parallel those about robots: that tools like texting that once seemed as useful substitutes for direct communication have now replaced it. That social networking is a mere shadow of the real thing. That innovations designed to make our lives easier have instead become the source of slavish addictions. Turkle frets that young people don't like to make phone calls anymore. She frets that Facebook, which presumably connects people, actually fosters loneliness. She frets that people take refuge in games and avatars and chat rooms rather than deal with their problems. She frets . . . .

"There is a danger that we will come to see these reductions in our expectations as the new norm," she writes of our tendency to displace our interactions with people through social media. "There is the possibility that chatting with anonymous humans can make online robots and bots and agents look like good company. An there is the possibility that the company on online bots makes anonymous humans look good." To which one finally feels compelled to say: "Duh." It's sort of like reading a book about about the impact of the automobile that has chapters on the dangers of car crashes, high insurance costs, the impact on the environment, and teenage entitlement. All real enough, and worth talking about. But the picture here seems a bit lopsided, and after a certain point one becomes impatient for concrete suggestions, which are largely lacking. Turkle thinks workers in geriatric care should be better paid. But that's not exactly dazzling public policy advice. Actually, I'm less worried about robots providing unsatisfactory medical care to the elderly or disabled than a where regime decides such people are just too much trouble, period. Such scenarios are hardly unimaginable, because they're rooted in history, not futurology.

And history is change over time. That almost always means trade-offs. At times it seems Turkle, trained as a psychoanalyst, believes that technological change should not have a potential negative impact on people. But of course it must; the power for good, which is stinted here, almost always means the power to do harm. For the moment at least, we have the freedom to act on our own behalf as it concerns our networked life. Discretion has always been and remains a deeply human attribute, albeit one difficult to achieve. Let the surfer beware.