‘Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?”: A “Necessary Conversation” with Sherry Turkle (Part One)

After more than twenty years of living in the heart of the machine, I have concluded that there are two ways of doing humanities at MIT (perhaps anywhere): the first is entrenched and embattled, defending the traditions, from a broom closet, trying to civilize those who see virtue in the technological and who undervalue the cultural; the second is engaged, confronting the technological and demanding that it serve human needs, asking core questions about the nature of our species, and exploring how the cultural and the psychological reasserts itself through those media which we make, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, into extensions of ourselves. There is at MIT no greater advocate for humanistic engagement than Sherry Turkle, whose work on technologies as “second selves,” as “evocative objects,” as intimate tools and “relational artifacts”, the central theme of her work.

It has been my joy and honor to consider Turkle my friend for more than two decades. Our paths crossed too rarely in the years I was in Cambridge, but each time they did, I left the conversation changed by her insights about core questions which shaped both of our work. Here is a video recording of our most recent in-person exchange, a public dialogue about solitude and participation in the digital age, which we conducted at the Scratch conference hosted by our mutual friend, Mitch Resnick, at the MIT Media Lab. It will be clear there that our shifting alignments, sometimes agreeing, but often coming at the world a bit askew to each other, brought out some fresh thinking from both of us.

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Sherry Turkle shared with me some years ago the insight that we are both victims of the public’s desire for simple answers. No matter what Sherry says, which is often layered and sometimes paradoxical, about the complexity of human’s relations with technology, there will be those who see her as too pessimistic and no matter what I say, people are going to see me as too celebratory. In both cases, at the heart of our work is the desire to “complicate” our understanding of technological change through a focus on core human experiences.

I was reminded of her statement when I saw the response to her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. Critics and supporters alike tended to read the book as a diatribe against new media and as thus a turning of her back on the work of many at MIT who stress the ways new tools are expanding rather than constraining human potentials. Many wrote to ask me what I thought of the book, often with the expectation that we were fundamentally at odds with each other.

I should have known better, but I found myself entering the book on the defensive, looking for points of disagreement, and there are certainly some of those as the following exchange will suggest. But, as I read, I found myself struggling to answer the challenges she posed, and finding the book anything but simplistic and one-sided. She is demanding that we all enter a new phase of the “conversation,” one which accepts that technological changes are fundamental and unlikely to reverse course, but one which demands that we shape technologies to core human needs and goals rather than the other way around.

This is the great theme which runs across the remarkable interview I am sharing with you this week, resurfacing again and again as she presses beyond simple one-sided perspectives and forces us to address our fundamental “vulnerability” to technological shifts. Do not enter into this interview expecting to disagree with Turkle or to simply reaffirm your own comfortable and well rehearsed arguments. Rather, use her comments to reshape your thinking and to redirect your energies to some of the core struggles of our times. What you will find throughout this discussion is a powerful intellect engaging with the shifting borders between the human and the mechanical, between psychology and technology, and between pessimism and skepticism. As always, I learn so much from reading Turkle’s work, even where, or perhaps especially where, we disagree. But, again, I would stress, we disagree far less often than many, ourselves among them, might imagine.

I was struck by one of the very first sentences in the book: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” Can you dissect that evocative phrase a bit for me? In what forms does the proposal take and how do we signal whether or not we accept?

From the earliest days that I came to MIT, struck by the intensity of people’s emotional engagement with their objects – and most especially with their computational objects – there were many people, and especially many colleagues, who were highly skeptical of my endeavor. And yet, I am inspired by Winston Churchill’s words, who said, before McCluhan rephrased: “We make our buildings, and in turn, our buildings make and shape us.” We make our technologies, and our technologies make and shape us. The technologies I study, the technologies of communication, are identity technologies. I think of them as intimate machines. They are not only, as the computer has always been, mirrors of our mind; they are now the places where the shape and dimensions of our relationship are sculpted.

I think of the technological devices as having an inner history. That inner history is how they shape our relationships with them and our relationships with each other. Another way to think of this is in terms of technological affordance and human vulnerability. Technologies have certain psychological affordances, they make certain psychological offers. We are vulnerable to many of these. There is an intricate play between what technology offers and what we, vulnerable, often struggle to refuse.

There would have been a time when technology was understood as the opposite of intimate — as something cold, impersonal, mechanical, and industrial. In a sense your three books have mapped the process by which we have come to embrace technology as intimate. What factors has led to this shift in our relationships to technology?

I think there are two ways of answering your question. The first is to say that technology has never been cold, impersonal, and industrial. We simply chose to understand it that way. Technology has always had a role in shaping the inner life, the intimate life. The telephone – surely a shaping force in the making and shaping of self. The telegram, the letter, the book.

As a teenager living in Paris in the 1960s, I remember the telephone being shunned as too “impersonal” – for significant apologies, a request for a meeting, an assignation – it was explained to me that one sent a pneumatique. All the post offices of Paris were connected with pneumatic tubes. One wrote a letter in a sealed envelope. It was picked up at one’s apartment and brought to the post, put in the tube, sent to the post office closest to the destinataire’s address and hand delivered. The pneumatique had the touch of the hand on the correspondence. This, too, was intimate technology. There was nothing cold about the letter.

Nor was there anything cold about how industrial technologies such as cars and trains shaped our sensibilities, our sense of self, of our sensuality, our possibilities. If we have succumbed to an ideology of technological neutrality that is something that needs to be studied as an independent phenomenon; it is not to be taken as a given.

But there is another way of approaching this question. And that is to say that I do believe that information technology and the digital revolution has changed something fundamental in our way of seeing the world. There is something new in our current circumstance. The computer is a mind machine, not only because it has its own very primitive psychology but because it causes us to reflect upon our own.

From the very beginning, people saw the computer as a “second self” – an extension and reflection of self. The computer seemed much like the psychologist’s inkblot test: the computer as Rorschach, a projection of personal concerns. Indeed, I got the title of my first book on the computer culture from a thirteen year old who said, after an experience with computers: “When you work with a computer, you put a little piece of your mind into the computer’s mind and you come to see yourself differently.” A second self. So, one might say that in a context where I believe that all technologies shape and make us, the computer takes this vocation to a higher power. Or perhaps, one might say, this vocation is a centerpiece of its identity. I think of it as an intimate machine.

This vocation has been heightened in the age of always-on/always-on-you communications devices, which of course are the focus of my current work. They move from being tools or perhaps prosthetics to giving people the sense of being near-cyborg. The devices seem like a phantom limb, so much are they are part of us.

Your discussion of our shifting relations to Robots remains focused primarily on the actual technological devices and the roles they play in our lived experience. Yet surely our shifting understanding of the robotic has also been shaped in profound ways by the cultural imagination. After all, the very term, Robot, emerges from a work of science fiction — Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1920) and surely our relations with actual robots have been shaped by science fiction representations from Asimov’s I Robot and Robbie the Robot and Gort to C3P0 and R2D2. So, what relationship might we posit between the creative imagination and our shifting relations to the robots in our physical surroundings?

This is a very important question for me. I have been tracking the flowering of a genre – there are of course antecedents – but now we have a flowering – of the robot who teaches people to love, and more than this, and crucially, teaches people how to be human. For me, the prototype here is WALL-E. The people have forgotten their sensuality, their capacity for love, their capacity for interconnectedness. It is a robot designed for industrial cleanup who rediscovers all of this, who falls in love and who, transcendent in this capacity, is in a position to teach it to humanity. In fact he saves humanity not just in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense as well.

In Alone Together, I talk about our having reached a “robotic moment.” This is not because we have robots who are capable of loving us, but because so many of the people I interviewed say that they are prepared to be loved by a robot. There is no question that imaginative literature and film have been part of this shift. We used to look to machines for physical help. Now we feel we are missing things on an emotional and spiritual dimension and we look to the machine world.

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 (2001) 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). Professor Turkle’s most recent book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published by Basic Books in January 2011.

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