Reflecting On Technology and Identity

Once the light turns out after a long day and the stillness of silence lays our busy minds to rest, it’s easy to become stricken by the sudden sense of being alone.

Silence makes us uncomfortable. Like an ache that begs to be eased, we scramble for a quick fix for connection through a digital extension.

A text or tweet is now part of a daily outreach regimen that helps us to feel recognized, or perhaps to feel just a little less lonely at night.

We are distressed and complex, and the connectivity afforded by technology promises to alleviate our longings: It’s that same trajectory we’ve been making towards technology for a long time, and it’s nothing new.

But Sherry Turkle, an Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, urges us to reflect critically not only on our social reliance on technology, but also on its ability to mold our identities and behaviors.

In 2001, Turkle founded the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self with the intention to form a center that builds safe spaces for reflection on the social and psychological dimensions that accompany technological change.

For over 15 years, Turkle has studied mobile communication and interviewed hundreds of people on the dynamics of their plugged-in lives. What she found was the incredible transformations these digital tools could have on our entire identities.

“Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are,” explained Turkle in her 2012 TED talk. “Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar.”

She is the author of books aptly titled to her studies such as, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) and most recently, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015).

Her initiative began with a host of working groups and research projects that took a precise look at the way in which people text and email during corporate meetings, presentations, classes, and even at the dining table.

Her research concluded with the results she heard over and over again: “I would rather text than talk.”

This was one of the first milestones in the investigation into the mirrored effects of rampant “connection” without intimate depth. Within this overwhelming push to stay connected there is an increased difficulty in forming intimacy.

“Many people share with me this wish: that some day a more advanced version of Siri, the digital assistant on Apple’s iPhone, will be more like a best friend, someone who will listen when others won’t,” Turkle said of the short-changed feelings many people seem to take away from face-to-face conversations today.

These sentiments are reported in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and have fueled the MIT Initiative to experiment with ways of combating this sentiment with work that brings real conversation back to center stage.

One substantial step towards regaining human charisma in conversation is the speaker series known as the “Evocative Objects” seminars. These seminars are open to the public and generate informal gatherings where the group focuses on one object, usually a cell phone or other piece of technology, and reflects on its ability to have us think differently about the self, other, intention, desire, emotion, and the body.

“Why does this matter?” Turkle asks in her TED speech. “It matters to me because I think we’re setting ourselves up for trouble–trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection.” She adds, “We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together.”

Technology provides us with this ability to tailor every interaction to our liking, when in reality, human intimacy and vulnerability are much more raw and uncomfortable.

When Turkle would ask people what was wrong with a conversation they would say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.”

The bottom line is this: texting, emailing, and posting let us prepare the self like a carefully orchestrated puppet that showcases only our best attributes. We can photoshop, alter, crop, delete anything that compromises the outside eye’s perception of us.

Turkle’s most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, focuses specifically on that difficult real-time navigation that we dread. Her work now strives to furnish the creations of sacred spaces in the home with honest listening and communication.

It seems technology has made a bid to redefine human interconnectivity for us, rather than the other way around.

Progress inevitably shapes us in some form or another, but if nothing else, Turkle’s work at least shines light on the capacity we have to reassess technology’s stake-hold in human relationships.

“Our fantasies of substitution have cost us,” laments Turkle. “Now we all need to focus on the many, many ways technology can lead us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities, our own politics, our own planet.”

Feature photo courtesy of Ashraf Siddiqui from Creative Commons Flickr.