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TED2012

Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

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Views 4,172,117

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication -- and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.

- Cultural analyst
Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships: with others, with ourselves, with it. Full bio

Just a moment ago,
00:15
my daughter Rebecca texted me for good luck.
00:17
Her text said,
00:21
"Mom, you will rock."
00:23
I love this.
00:26
Getting that text
00:28
was like getting a hug.
00:30
And so there you have it.
00:32
I embody
00:35
the central paradox.
00:37
I'm a woman
00:39
who loves getting texts
00:41
who's going to tell you
00:43
that too many of them can be a problem.
00:45
Actually that reminder of my daughter
00:48
brings me to the beginning of my story.
00:51
1996, when I gave my first TEDTalk,
00:54
Rebecca was five years old
00:58
and she was sitting right there
01:00
in the front row.
01:02
I had just written a book
01:04
that celebrated our life on the internet
01:06
and I was about to be on the cover
01:08
of Wired magazine.
01:11
In those heady days,
01:13
we were experimenting
01:15
with chat rooms and online virtual communities.
01:17
We were exploring different aspects of ourselves.
01:20
And then we unplugged.
01:24
I was excited.
01:26
And, as a psychologist, what excited me most
01:28
was the idea
01:31
that we would use what we learned in the virtual world
01:33
about ourselves, about our identity,
01:36
to live better lives in the real world.
01:39
Now fast-forward to 2012.
01:42
I'm back here on the TED stage again.
01:45
My daughter's 20. She's a college student.
01:48
She sleeps with her cellphone,
01:51
so do I.
01:55
And I've just written a new book,
01:57
but this time it's not one
02:00
that will get me on the cover
02:03
of Wired magazine.
02:05
So what happened?
02:07
I'm still excited by technology,
02:10
but I believe,
02:13
and I'm here to make the case,
02:15
that we're letting it take us places
02:17
that we don't want to go.
02:19
Over the past 15 years,
02:21
I've studied technologies of mobile communication
02:23
and I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people,
02:26
young and old,
02:29
about their plugged in lives.
02:31
And what I've found
02:33
is that our little devices,
02:35
those little devices in our pockets,
02:37
are so psychologically powerful
02:40
that they don't only change what we do,
02:42
they change who we are.
02:46
Some of the things we do now with our devices
02:49
are things that, only a few years ago,
02:51
we would have found odd
02:54
or disturbing,
02:56
but they've quickly come to seem familiar,
02:58
just how we do things.
03:01
So just to take some quick examples:
03:03
People text or do email
03:06
during corporate board meetings.
03:08
They text and shop and go on Facebook
03:11
during classes, during presentations,
03:14
actually during all meetings.
03:17
People talk to me about the important new skill
03:19
of making eye contact
03:22
while you're texting.
03:24
(Laughter)
03:26
People explain to me
03:28
that it's hard, but that it can be done.
03:30
Parents text and do email
03:33
at breakfast and at dinner
03:35
while their children complain
03:37
about not having their parents' full attention.
03:40
But then these same children
03:42
deny each other their full attention.
03:44
This is a recent shot
03:47
of my daughter and her friends
03:49
being together
03:52
while not being together.
03:54
And we even text at funerals.
03:57
I study this.
03:59
We remove ourselves
04:01
from our grief or from our revery
04:03
and we go into our phones.
04:05
Why does this matter?
04:08
It matters to me
04:10
because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble --
04:12
trouble certainly
04:15
in how we relate to each other,
04:17
but also trouble
04:19
in how we relate to ourselves
04:21
and our capacity for self-reflection.
04:24
We're getting used to a new way
04:27
of being alone together.
04:29
People want to be with each other,
04:32
but also elsewhere --
04:34
connected to all the different places they want to be.
04:36
People want to customize their lives.
04:39
They want to go in and out of all the places they are
04:42
because the thing that matters most to them
04:45
is control over where they put their attention.
04:47
So you want to go to that board meeting,
04:51
but you only want to pay attention
04:54
to the bits that interest you.
04:56
And some people think that's a good thing.
04:58
But you can end up
05:01
hiding from each other,
05:03
even as we're all constantly connected to each other.
05:05
A 50-year-old business man
05:08
lamented to me
05:10
that he feels he doesn't have colleagues anymore at work.
05:12
When he goes to work, he doesn't stop by to talk to anybody,
05:15
he doesn't call.
05:18
And he says he doesn't want to interrupt his colleagues
05:20
because, he says, "They're too busy on their email."
05:23
But then he stops himself
05:26
and he says, "You know, I'm not telling you the truth.
05:28
I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted.
05:30
I think I should want to,
05:33
but actually I'd rather just do things on my Blackberry."
05:35
Across the generations,
05:39
I see that people can't get enough of each other,
05:41
if and only if
05:45
they can have each other at a distance,
05:47
in amounts they can control.
05:50
I call it the Goldilocks effect:
05:52
not too close, not too far,
05:55
just right.
05:58
But what might feel just right
06:00
for that middle-aged executive
06:02
can be a problem for an adolescent
06:04
who needs to develop face-to-face relationships.
06:06
An 18-year-old boy
06:10
who uses texting for almost everything
06:12
says to me wistfully,
06:15
"Someday, someday,
06:17
but certainly not now,
06:20
I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."
06:22
When I ask people
06:26
"What's wrong with having a conversation?"
06:28
People say, "I'll tell you what's wrong with having a conversation.
06:31
It takes place in real time
06:35
and you can't control what you're going to say."
06:38
So that's the bottom line.
06:42
Texting, email, posting,
06:44
all of these things
06:47
let us present the self as we want to be.
06:49
We get to edit,
06:52
and that means we get to delete,
06:54
and that means we get to retouch,
06:57
the face, the voice,
07:00
the flesh, the body --
07:02
not too little, not too much,
07:04
just right.
07:07
Human relationships
07:09
are rich and they're messy
07:11
and they're demanding.
07:13
And we clean them up with technology.
07:15
And when we do,
07:18
one of the things that can happen
07:20
is that we sacrifice conversation
07:22
for mere connection.
07:24
We short-change ourselves.
07:26
And over time,
07:29
we seem to forget this,
07:31
or we seem to stop caring.
07:33
I was caught off guard
07:36
when Stephen Colbert
07:40
asked me a profound question,
07:42
a profound question.
07:46
He said, "Don't all those little tweets,
07:49
don't all those little sips
07:55
of online communication,
07:58
add up to one big gulp
08:01
of real conversation?"
08:04
My answer was no,
08:08
they don't add up.
08:10
Connecting in sips may work
08:12
for gathering discreet bits of information,
08:16
they may work for saying, "I'm thinking about you,"
08:20
or even for saying, "I love you," --
08:24
I mean, look at how I felt
08:26
when I got that text from my daughter --
08:28
but they don't really work
08:31
for learning about each other,
08:33
for really coming to know and understand each other.
08:35
And we use conversations with each other
08:39
to learn how to have conversations
08:43
with ourselves.
08:45
So a flight from conversation
08:47
can really matter
08:49
because it can compromise
08:51
our capacity for self-reflection.
08:53
For kids growing up,
08:55
that skill is the bedrock of development.
08:57
Over and over I hear,
09:01
"I would rather text than talk."
09:03
And what I'm seeing
09:06
is that people get so used to being short-changed
09:08
out of real conversation,
09:10
so used to getting by with less,
09:12
that they've become almost willing
09:15
to dispense with people altogether.
09:17
So for example,
09:19
many people share with me this wish,
09:21
that some day a more advanced version of Siri,
09:23
the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone,
09:26
will be more like a best friend,
09:29
someone who will listen
09:31
when others won't.
09:33
I believe this wish
09:35
reflects a painful truth
09:37
that I've learned in the past 15 years.
09:39
That feeling that no one is listening to me
09:42
is very important
09:46
in our relationships with technology.
09:48
That's why it's so appealing
09:50
to have a Facebook page
09:52
or a Twitter feed --
09:54
so many automatic listeners.
09:56
And the feeling that no one is listening to me
09:59
make us want to spend time
10:02
with machines that seem to care about us.
10:04
We're developing robots,
10:07
they call them sociable robots,
10:09
that are specifically designed to be companions --
10:11
to the elderly,
10:14
to our children,
10:16
to us.
10:18
Have we so lost confidence
10:20
that we will be there for each other?
10:23
During my research
10:27
I worked in nursing homes,
10:29
and I brought in these sociable robots
10:31
that were designed to give the elderly
10:34
the feeling that they were understood.
10:36
And one day I came in
10:39
and a woman who had lost a child
10:41
was talking to a robot
10:43
in the shape of a baby seal.
10:45
It seemed to be looking in her eyes.
10:48
It seemed to be following the conversation.
10:50
It comforted her.
10:53
And many people found this amazing.
10:56
But that woman was trying to make sense of her life
11:00
with a machine that had no experience
11:05
of the arc of a human life.
11:08
That robot put on a great show.
11:11
And we're vulnerable.
11:13
People experience pretend empathy
11:15
as though it were the real thing.
11:18
So during that moment
11:21
when that woman
11:25
was experiencing that pretend empathy,
11:27
I was thinking, "That robot can't empathize.
11:30
It doesn't face death.
11:33
It doesn't know life."
11:35
And as that woman took comfort
11:37
in her robot companion,
11:39
I didn't find it amazing;
11:41
I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments
11:43
in my 15 years of work.
11:47
But when I stepped back,
11:51
I felt myself
11:53
at the cold, hard center
11:55
of a perfect storm.
11:58
We expect more from technology
12:00
and less from each other.
12:03
And I ask myself,
12:06
"Why have things come to this?"
12:08
And I believe it's because
12:11
technology appeals to us most
12:13
where we are most vulnerable.
12:16
And we are vulnerable.
12:18
We're lonely,
12:20
but we're afraid of intimacy.
12:22
And so from social networks to sociable robots,
12:24
we're designing technologies
12:27
that will give us the illusion of companionship
12:29
without the demands of friendship.
12:32
We turn to technology to help us feel connected
12:34
in ways we can comfortably control.
12:37
But we're not so comfortable.
12:40
We are not so much in control.
12:42
These days, those phones in our pockets
12:45
are changing our minds and hearts
12:48
because they offer us
12:50
three gratifying fantasies.
12:52
One, that we can put our attention
12:54
wherever we want it to be;
12:56
two, that we will always be heard;
12:58
and three, that we will never have to be alone.
13:01
And that third idea,
13:04
that we will never have to be alone,
13:06
is central to changing our psyches.
13:09
Because the moment that people are alone,
13:11
even for a few seconds,
13:14
they become anxious, they panic, they fidget,
13:16
they reach for a device.
13:19
Just think of people at a checkout line
13:21
or at a red light.
13:23
Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.
13:25
And so people try to solve it by connecting.
13:29
But here, connection
13:32
is more like a symptom than a cure.
13:34
It expresses, but it doesn't solve,
13:37
an underlying problem.
13:40
But more than a symptom,
13:42
constant connection is changing
13:44
the way people think of themselves.
13:46
It's shaping a new way of being.
13:48
The best way to describe it is,
13:51
I share therefore I am.
13:53
We use technology to define ourselves
13:56
by sharing our thoughts and feelings
13:59
even as we're having them.
14:01
So before it was:
14:03
I have a feeling,
14:05
I want to make a call.
14:07
Now it's: I want to have a feeling,
14:09
I need to send a text.
14:12
The problem with this new regime
14:14
of "I share therefore I am"
14:17
is that, if we don't have connection,
14:19
we don't feel like ourselves.
14:21
We almost don't feel ourselves.
14:23
So what do we do? We connect more and more.
14:25
But in the process,
14:28
we set ourselves up to be isolated.
14:30
How do you get from connection to isolation?
14:33
You end up isolated
14:37
if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude,
14:39
the ability to be separate,
14:41
to gather yourself.
14:44
Solitude is where you find yourself
14:46
so that you can reach out to other people
14:49
and form real attachments.
14:51
When we don't have the capacity for solitude,
14:54
we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious
14:57
or in order to feel alive.
15:00
When this happens,
15:02
we're not able to appreciate who they are.
15:04
It's as though we're using them
15:07
as spare parts
15:09
to support our fragile sense of self.
15:11
We slip into thinking that always being connected
15:14
is going to make us feel less alone.
15:17
But we're at risk,
15:21
because actually it's the opposite that's true.
15:23
If we're not able to be alone,
15:26
we're going to be more lonely.
15:28
And if we don't teach our children to be alone,
15:30
they're only going to know
15:33
how to be lonely.
15:35
When I spoke at TED in 1996,
15:37
reporting on my studies
15:40
of the early virtual communities,
15:42
I said, "Those who make the most
15:44
of their lives on the screen
15:47
come to it in a spirit of self-reflection."
15:49
And that's what I'm calling for here, now:
15:52
reflection and, more than that, a conversation
15:55
about where our current use of technology
15:58
may be taking us,
16:01
what it might be costing us.
16:03
We're smitten with technology.
16:05
And we're afraid, like young lovers,
16:08
that too much talking might spoil the romance.
16:11
But it's time to talk.
16:14
We grew up with digital technology
16:16
and so we see it as all grown up.
16:19
But it's not, it's early days.
16:21
There's plenty of time
16:24
for us to reconsider how we use it,
16:26
how we build it.
16:28
I'm not suggesting
16:30
that we turn away from our devices,
16:32
just that we develop a more self-aware relationship
16:34
with them, with each other
16:37
and with ourselves.
16:39
I see some first steps.
16:42
Start thinking of solitude
16:44
as a good thing.
16:46
Make room for it.
16:48
Find ways to demonstrate this
16:50
as a value to your children.
16:53
Create sacred spaces at home --
16:55
the kitchen, the dining room --
16:57
and reclaim them for conversation.
16:59
Do the same thing at work.
17:02
At work, we're so busy communicating
17:04
that we often don't have time to think,
17:06
we don't have time to talk,
17:09
about the things that really matter.
17:12
Change that.
17:14
Most important, we all really need to listen to each other,
17:16
including to the boring bits.
17:20
Because it's when we stumble
17:24
or hesitate or lose our words
17:26
that we reveal ourselves to each other.
17:29
Technology is making a bid
17:33
to redefine human connection --
17:36
how we care for each other,
17:38
how we care for ourselves --
17:40
but it's also giving us the opportunity
17:42
to affirm our values
17:44
and our direction.
17:46
I'm optimistic.
17:48
We have everything we need to start.
17:50
We have each other.
17:53
And we have the greatest chance of success
17:55
if we recognize our vulnerability.
17:58
That we listen
18:01
when technology says
18:03
it will take something complicated
18:05
and promises something simpler.
18:08
So in my work,
18:11
I hear that life is hard,
18:13
relationships are filled with risk.
18:16
And then there's technology --
18:18
simpler, hopeful,
18:20
optimistic, ever-young.
18:22
It's like calling in the cavalry.
18:25
An ad campaign promises
18:27
that online and with avatars,
18:29
you can "Finally, love your friends
18:31
love your body, love your life,
18:35
online and with avatars."
18:38
We're drawn to virtual romance,
18:41
to computer games that seem like worlds,
18:43
to the idea that robots, robots,
18:46
will someday be our true companions.
18:50
We spend an evening on the social network
18:53
instead of going to the pub with friends.
18:56
But our fantasies of substitution
18:59
have cost us.
19:01
Now we all need to focus
19:04
on the many, many ways
19:07
technology can lead us back
19:09
to our real lives, our own bodies,
19:11
our own communities,
19:14
our own politics,
19:16
our own planet.
19:18
They need us.
19:20
Let's talk about
19:22
how we can use digital technology,
19:24
the technology of our dreams,
19:27
to make this life
19:30
the life we can love.
19:32
Thank you.
19:34
(Applause)
19:36

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About the speaker:

Sherry Turkle - Cultural analyst
Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships: with others, with ourselves, with it.

Why you should listen

Since her path breaking The Second Self: Computers and The Human Spirit in 1984 psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle has been studying how technology changes not only what we do but also whom we are. In 1995's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle explored how the Internet provided new possibilities for exploring identity. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis confront us with moments of temptation. Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. In her most recent bestselling book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle argues that now, with a deeper understanding of our vulnerability to technology, we must reclaim conversation, the most human—and humanizing—thing that we do. The virtues of person-to-person conversation are timeless; to the disconnections of our modern age, it is the talking cure.

Described as "the Margaret Mead of digital cuture," Turkle's work focuses on the world of social media, the digital workplace, and the rise of chatbots and sociable robots. As she puts it, these are technologies that propose themselves "as the architect of our intimacies." We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. Turkle suggests that just because we grew up with the Internet, we tend to see it as all grown up, but it is not: Digital technology is still in its infancy, and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it.

Turkle is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

More profile about the speaker
Sherry Turkle | Speaker | TED.com