Technology Is Harming Our Relationships, and We Can Stop It
The Paradox of Choice: The more choices a person has, the less satisfied the person is with any of the choices. Technology, despite its best intentions, exacerbates this paradox. It also succeeds in disconnecting us while it seeks to connect us.
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.
Professor Turkle is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; MIT Press paper, 1981; second revised edition, Guilford Press, 1992); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984; Touchstone paper, 1985; second revised edition, MIT Press, 2005); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet(Simon and Schuster, 1995; Touchstone paper, 1997); and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press, 2009). She is the editor of three books about things and thinking, all published by the MIT Press: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008); and The Inner History of Devices (2008). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other was published by Basic Books in January 2011.
Professor Turkle's newest book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, October 2015).
Sherry Turkle: The use of devices in romance is a very complicated story. Because obviously it brings people together in ways that are bringing tremendous efficiencies into the area of our intimacies and in some ways that's a good thing. But it also is having some paradoxical effects. Like there's this thing called The Paradox of Choice where if you're given a limited number of choices, you sort of choose and are happy with the limited number of choices and you say, "Okay, I'm choosing among 50 women who live more or less in my neighborhood or 50 women who I'm probably going to date in the course of my lifetime and I'll be pretty discriminating, but of those 50 or 75 women, I'll try to meet someone I really like. I'll explore those relationships." If you're swiping through 10,000 women, that's your expectation; it's like, "Whoa the 10,001st that will be a real one." I mean it's kind of like you're offered so many that it almost becomes impossible to think of choosing on any one because the next one could be the real one.
So people who were offered more choices start to be very unhappy with any of their choices. This has been studied in the area of being offered chocolate candy more than it's been studied in the area of being offered romantic partners. But we see that happening in how people talk about romantic partners, that it's just kind of too much, too overwhelming, you know; it's that Chatroulette swipe that became the Tinder swipe that became a sort of just kind of moving on. So that's kind of a side effect of the world of choice and romance that people start to complain about.
And then second, people want to have a lot of their conversations online in romance because they feel they can be there's best self online. They can edit. The notion of editing in romance, the notion of being a better self, a more empathic yourself, your best self comes up a lot. People want to be lovable. People don't want to be rejected. And there's this fantasy that you won't be rejected if you have a chance to kind of listen to what this beautiful woman has said to you and construct the answer that will be kind of the most wonderful for her. But in the course of doing that, she's kind of not seeing you warts and all and she's doing the same thing. And I study one couple, their emails over the years, and they're both editing and they're missing the fundamentals that they need to deal with because they're both editing and you just want to get these people into a room. As you read their edited relationship as they're presenting themselves online, you just see how they're missing the fundamentals because they're not picking up the clues that they would if they were face to face. Ultimately they break up. And I think that we're getting too used to being able to present our edited selves. And again, there's nothing wrong with using technology in romance, but we also have to remember that we're connecting with someone who needs to know who we are, not who we wish we were and we could edit ourselves into.
The Paradox of Choice: The more choices a person has, the less satisfied the person is with any of the choices. Technology, despite its best intentions, exacerbates this paradox. It also succeeds in disconnecting us while it seeks to connect us. We're facing a situation in which the desire to present one's best self overtakes the importance of live, in-person contact, which then leads to weaker relationships as a whole.
Dr. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self is an expert on mobile technology and social networking. In this video, she runs through the various unintended consequences of technologies such as Tinder and Chatroulette.
Dr. Turkle's newest book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
- Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
- But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
- Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.