Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together is a dystopic treatise on the increasing presence of machines in our lives, both as mediums of constant connectivity and via interactive entities like robots. Turkle fears that we are underestimating the deep and complex implications of the rise of technology. In her opinion, the implications are dark: machines will tear us away from “real” relationships between humans by seducing us to enjoy safe and loyal relationships with robots or by facilitating distance by encouraging us to use text, email, and video chat instead of in-person conversations.

In her epilogue, Turkle speaks longingly of the letters she and her mother exchanged when Turkle left for college. In contrast, her constant communication via text and Skype with her daughter who moved to Ireland for her gap year is perfunctory and lacks the depth of hand-written letters. If one were to read the end first, starting with the story of her disenchantment with Skype, one might never read the book at all. In her nostalgia for hand-written detailed exchanges, Turkle appears out-dated and “old-school.” But in fact, despite our conclusion that Turkle looks too much on the gloomy and negative side of the inevitable rise of machines amongst us, we have to admit that some of her reservations are worth pondering.

Alone Together is divided into two parts: our interaction with robots and our relentless connectivity thanks to mobile phones and the Internet. In both sections, Turkle speaks almost exclusively to children and teenagers. We found the section outlining children’s reactions to robots like Tamagotchis, Furbies and My Real Baby highly illuminating. Turkle liberally sprinkles her book with quotes from her subjects, who provide entertaining, lively and surprisingly insightful thoughts on robots despite their youth. Children enjoy robotic toys, looking at them not as functional objects that will be intelligent and helpful (as in a high-tech microwave), but as “almost-alive” creatures that need to be nurtured and loved. Turkle rightly asserts that such familial association is what we will all come to have with machines, and that children are the only ones who understand it right from the start. Children recognize the powerful magnetism of robots that are programmed to respond to human affection (by purring, chatting, batting eye lashes and so forth). Some of them say that they would like to give a robot as a companion to their grandparents, but worry that the grandparents might prefer the robot to them in the long run. The tone of the book unfortunately turns the charming and delicate companionship between robotic toys and children into a pathetic cry for attention by children. Turkle wrongly believes that by using robots, we are in fact using machines to do what is “love’s labor: caring for each other.”

Turkle is similarly pessimistic about the virtues of social networking tools like mobile phones and Facebook, insisting that these technologies help people avoid real-world interactions. This will especially resonate with parents with teenage children who seem absolutely absorbed in hundreds of meaningless texts every month. We think Turkle is right to flag concern on the amount of time spent saying “Waasssup” and receiving a banal sentence in return on text and IM, but we also think she is wrong in dismissing this form of communication as insincere and shallow. What is needed is ways to help children and teenagers manage technologies, not to bemoan their presence. If anything, we’re going to see robots and more continual high-speed connectivity. We need to learn how to manage these technologies so that we remain together even when physically alone.  

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.