A More Crocodile Crocodile

Lidija Haas

  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
    Basic, 360 pp, £18.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 465 01021 9

At the height of the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ scandal of 2006 – George W. Bush had authorised the National Security Agency to monitor overseas phone calls involving suspected al-Qaida operatives, but it transpired that the surveillance extended to all electronic communication and web activity, foreign and domestic – Sherry Turkle went to a party celebrating the Webby Awards. An unnamed ‘Web luminary’ explained why he wasn’t concerned about privacy and state spying. On the internet, he told Turkle, ‘someone might always be watching, so it doesn’t matter if, from time to time, someone actually is.’ In other words, never do or say something you wouldn’t want others, including the government, to know about: you’re safe ‘as long as you are not doing anything wrong’. ‘All around us at the cocktail party,’ Turkle recalls, ‘there were nods of assent.’

Anecdotes like this are a gift to techie-haters. Writers on technology and the internet can often be divided into triumphalists and alarmists, and on the face of it Turkle would seem to belong in the second camp. The subtitle of her latest book, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, sounds like a cousin to What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, or The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. But Turkle is not a Luddite or a scaremonger: Alone Together is the third in a trilogy, part of a project she has been working on since she joined MIT in 1976 and noticed that the people there were using the language of psychology to talk about their machines. At the same time, computational metaphors – debugging, hardwiring, reprogramming – were becoming commonplace in discussions about politics, education, the mind and the self. Alone Together is not the work of someone hostile to technology’s advances, but Turkle has described it as ‘a book of repentance’: she is atoning for the things she missed or got wrong in her earlier, sunnier work on computers and people.

Turkle published the first book in her trilogy, The Second Self, in 1984; in it, she examined children’s first encounters with computers, electronic toys and video games, and from there went on to think about the subcultures of AI, hacking and home-computer hobbyism. She identified three stages in the children: the youngest had a ‘metaphysical’ reaction to the machines, asking questions about what it means for something to be alive; the seven or eight-year-olds were more interested in ‘mastery’, wanting to win at games or use the computers to make things; the adolescents again were reflective, but now their concern was with identity – which is to say, with themselves. They developed widely differing programming styles: aggressively competitive or dreamy and artistic, tinkering with small details or reimagining everything from scratch. These differences didn’t simply mirror their existing personalities; programming prompted them to reflect on – and sometimes change – their behaviour and the relationships they had with other people. Computers, she concluded, could be intimately involved in ‘the development of personality, of identity and even of sexuality’. Among the adults, those who were interested in AI were drawn to philosophical questions, hackers set themselves ever greater challenges, and the hobbyists saw aspects of themselves reflected in their machines.

Turkle was intrigued by the seemingly endless forms that interaction with computers could take. By 1995, when Life on the Screen was published, more and more of these possibilities were being realised. Turkle described multiplayer games and virtual spaces which allowed people to ‘cycle through’ different identities, relationships and worlds. She had sounded a few warning notes in The Second Self about the ‘holding power’ that could keep people at their screens for hours at a stretch, or the risk that someone who finds it hard to deal with others could ‘get stuck’ in a relationship with a machine that offers a simplified, unthreatening simulation of companionship. These worries emerged a good deal more strongly in Life on the Screen. But in both books Turkle saw the computer, and by extension the internet, as offering unprecedented opportunities for the expansion of thought and creativity as well as novel forms of therapy. The tone of the latest book is different, partly because the subculture she was studying has now become the mainstream. Once computers were a conceptual challenge; now they are a mundane tool for most of us, not an occasion for the kind of philosophising that interests Turkle. She clearly finds this pragmatic, unreflective attitude alarming.

Although she still uses the same ethnographic approach, the detachment with which she observed her subjects in the 1970s and 1980s is no longer possible. The Second Self included painstaking descriptions of the way things worked: ‘I sent out a message describing my project on a nationwide computer net … people could respond to my message when I was “off-line”, that is, they could leave electronic mail for me in a “mailbox” file, or they could wait until I was “on-line”, working at my terminal.’ Very little of the technology described in Alone Together needs that sort of introduction, but in some ways that makes for an even stranger effect: the seven hundred or so people she studies and with whom she conducts ‘clinical’ interviews might just as easily have been her readers and their children. Dividing the book in two, she looks at our communications – networked, mediated, ‘always on’ – and at our increasing willingness to welcome robots as potential companions. She begins with the creepy robots. Life on the Screen traced some of the history of AI, and the hopes for a new, unpredictable, ‘unbidden’ form of ‘mind’ that might eventually emerge from the interaction of simple programs. In Alone Together, following newer developments in robotics, Turkle has turned her attention to artificial emotion and machines designed to simulate feeling.

Where in the 1980s she watched children trying to figure out if their electronic games were alive, or at least conscious enough to think and cheat, in the last few years she has been observing their reactions to the robots they meet and talk to in laboratories, and to toys that ask for love or say ‘Me scared’ when you shake them. Similar creatures have been designed for adults: she takes these into houses and nursing homes, and spends time with the researchers who developed them. What comes out of these encounters is often bizarre. A graduate student of Turkle’s is upset to find a humanoid MIT robot called Nexi blindfolded behind a curtain while not in use; other students wonder if this is ‘to protect “her” from fully grasping “her” situation’. A troubled 12-year-old says, ‘Cog doesn’t really care about me,’ and puts his head in the path of the robot’s falling arm as a ‘love test’ to see if it will stop before hurting him. At a party, Turkle notes the expression of ‘shocked pleasure’ on the face of a ‘smiling faculty wife’ when a My Real Baby robot she puts over her shoulder ‘burps and then settles down’. The eagerness of humans to feel loved by robots and see them as real enough to confide in or look after is eerie.

Though many of the people in her study are potentially vulnerable – children or isolated, neglected adults – she is confident that the pattern is universal: if something seems even slightly capable of interaction, we desperately want it to like us. Those who first encountered Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza program – it was designed to interact in the style of a psychotherapist: ‘I am depressed’ would bring the response ‘Why do you tell me that you are depressed?’ – soon showed signs of wanting to be alone with it and tell it secrets, despite its obvious inability to understand; instead of trying to trip it up, they fed Eliza lines that would help it respond more realistically. In Life on the Screen, Turkle saw Eliza as a harmless and potentially useful exercise in self-reflection, not that different from a diary, but now she sees its users as manifesting a worrying desire to meet a machine more than halfway. They like to talk to Eliza, she suggests, because they’re ‘reluctant’ to talk to other people: they may want a ‘therapist’ to reflect their own feelings back to them unchallenged, but that isn’t the sort of therapist Turkle thinks they should have. The attraction of robot companions, it seems, is their total compliance, loyalty and predictability. The ‘machine dream’, as she sees it, is to be ‘never alone but always in control’ – which is exactly what she objects to.

In The Second Self, a computer – that ‘machine on the border of becoming a mind’ – could mystify a child; as with human beings, it’s hard to tell what really makes it go. But watching children play with Furbies and other ‘seductive’ toys, Turkle sees a new combination of confusion and uncritical acceptance, a desire to take the robot at ‘interface value’. Unlike dolls, the robot toy is prescriptive: it tells you what it wants and demands to be accommodated. The child moves ‘beyond a psychology of projection to a new psychology of engagement’. With a doll, even the most imaginative child knows that he or she is playing alone. The prototype for My Real Baby was designed to cry out in pain when handled roughly, but when Hasbro put it into mass production they decided that it should instead shut down in such situations, so as not to ‘enable’ sadistic behaviour. Nobody would want ‘to see their children tormenting a screaming baby’, but what might they learn from one that doesn’t react to torture?

If human feelings are simply so many neurons firing, perhaps ways could eventually be found to produce ‘synthetic emotions’, but Turkle isn’t impressed by the idea. ‘We build robots to do things that make us feel as though they have emotions. Our responses are their design template.’ Turkle’s colleagues insist that ‘performance is the currency of all social relationships.’ In Japan, people hire actors to visit their elderly parents in their place, and many parents are happy to play along. The visits in any case involve ‘the acting out of scripts’, so sending in a ‘well-trained and courteous’ professional to play your role is still a mark of filial respect. And if an actor will do, Turkle wonders, then why not a robot? In 2005, when Turkle took her own daughter, then 14, to a Darwin exhibition at New York’s Natural History Museum, she looked at one of the giant Galapagos tortoises and said: ‘They could have used a robot.’ Turkle asked other children in the crowd if they felt the same, and the consensus was that in this context ‘aliveness didn’t seem worth the trouble.’ ‘But the point is that they are real,’ Turkle heard a plaintive father telling his 12-year-old. ‘That’s the whole point.’ Turkle recalls a Disney executive telling her that early visitors to Animal Kingdom complained that the live creatures were less ‘realistic’ than the animatronic versions elsewhere at Disneyworld. Robot crocodiles were much better at performing ‘archetypal’ crocodileness than the real ones.[*]

I was born the year Turkle published The Second Self, so I’m just a few years older than the ‘tethered’ generation she worries about, but in my teens so many things were different: if you were an hour late to meet a friend, they’d just stand there for an hour (or not) – there could be no last-minute rearrangements; or you might wait half the day for a phone call, and then have to pick up not knowing who it was. If you were out somewhere at night, you couldn’t easily call your mother and lie: on the other hand, she couldn’t call you and expect you to answer. Turkle observes that many children of her daughter’s generation feel nostalgic for things they never experienced: handwritten letters; parents who don’t always have one eye on their smartphones; not having to perform constantly and respond instantly. ‘How long do I have to continue doing this?’ she overhears a boy asking himself, as he starts in on the hundred text messages backed up on his phone after it had been switched off for an hour. Turkle remembers a time, in her early days at MIT, when the leading lights of computer science wondered what ordinary people could find to do with the new personal computers. They tried to think up ‘ways to keep technology busy’, not realising that in the near future it would be the other way around.

Turkle picks out the contradictions of the networked life that everyone has now come to take for granted, but adolescents especially: the desire for attention and the desire to hide, constantly online but dreading the exposure of a phone call. (The phone, teenagers tell her, is difficult, ‘awkward’; they fear being seen to feel too much or too little – and the rarer the calls become, the greater the pressure for them to be meaningful or worthwhile.) The network we now carry around with us saves time yet uses up much more of it. It makes us so available to each other that sometimes we need to withdraw, but the result is that neither intimacy nor solitude is quite what it used to be. Most of the teenagers Turkle speaks to are in constant touch with their parents as well as each other, even when travelling halfway around the world. This has been true of Rebecca, Turkle’s daughter, to whom both Life on the Screen and the latest book – framed as a letter to her – are dedicated. Turkle worries that their frequent contact through texting or on Skype doesn’t leave the space for a real conversation that the letters she once exchanged with her own mother did. The medium they are using imposes ‘breeziness’: Turkle argues that people risk impairing the quality of their thought and communication by so often resorting to media designed only for short, simplified messages. I’d argue that this isn’t true of email, a medium Turkle doesn’t pay much attention to because the kids she studies barely use it except for job or college applications. It’s true that email lacks the intimacy of handwriting, the trace of the body, but it has its own intimacy: it can be long, complex, intricate, to be kept and reread as letters are, and unlike letters, it transmits the thoughts of the sender at the time they’re being thought. The momentary erosion of distance can still be magical rather than debilitating.

Along with the flood of attenuated communication, one of Turkle’s greatest disappointments seems to be what has become of life online. Though taken aback in the early 1990s when a young man told her that ‘RL’ (real life) was just one of the windows he kept open on his screen, and ‘usually not my best one’, Turkle seemed willing to believe that the process of ‘cycling through’ alternative worlds and personae could be fruitful. ‘Like the anthropologist returning home from a foreign culture,’ she wrote, ‘the voyager in virtuality can return to a real world better equipped to understand its artifices.’ Now, because these worlds can be with you wherever you go, and because of the increased overlap between them (money in the online role-playing game Second Life has a value in dollars), there is less scope for reflection, more of an uneasy ‘life mix’ in which different realities bleed into each other without obvious reward. A man whose avatar frequently spends hours counselling the avatar of a suicidal French woman tells Turkle he doesn’t mind if she isn’t really French, but would feel betrayed if he found out she wasn’t really depressed or, for that matter, wasn’t really a woman.

In the 1990s, Turkle imagined the internet as a free, fluid place, an anonymous, impermanent adventure playground that anyone could dip into and out of. Virtualness could be ‘the raft, the ladder, the transitional space, the moratorium, that is discarded after reaching greater freedom’. In 2009, Kevin Kelly, the first editor of Wired, described the way he still loved to ‘get lost’ in the web’s ‘wilderness’: ‘The bramble of intertwined ideas, links, documents and images create an otherness as thick as a jungle. The web smells like life.’ But for the young people Turkle observes, the experience has been reversed. They don’t have the promise of transience, anonymity or a place to explore without consequence: everywhere they go online, they leave a trace, an ‘internet twin’ that can never be got rid of. The sites they visit take every opportunity to gather information about them and link it all up. Turkle sometimes hears from teenagers that ‘Facebook is owned by young people,’ an idea that conflates ‘investors, owners, managers, inventors, spokespeople and shareholders’ and is ‘innocent of any understanding of how corporations work’. But for the most part she finds that this generation, rather than not caring at all about privacy, as is often suggested in the press, feels ‘resignation and impotence’ in the face of the vast online history that already trails behind them: they would rather behave as if it wasn’t there. So, for that matter, would the rest of us.

[*] Sherry Turkle wrote about the visit to the museum in the LRB of 20 April 2006.