"Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?": A "Necessary Conversation" with Sherry Turkle (Part Two)

In many ways, both of us have been profoundly shaped by our time amongst MIT Students. And you wrote very explicitly about MIT hacker culture in The Second Self. What do you see as the strengths and limitations of MIT as a testing ground for your ideas?

I don't see MIT as a testing ground for my ideas. I would say rather that MIT is the place where my ideas are most challenged because there is a tendency at MIT to want to see human purposes and technological affordances as being one. Technology has purposes; technology is made by people. Technology and people are at one in their purpose.

From my point of view, every technology offers an opportunity for people do ask: "Does this technology serve human purposes?" and this is a wonderful thing because it enables us to ask again what these purposes are. We are well positioned to create technology whose purposes are not in our best interests. And then, it is time to make the corrections.

So, from this point of view, I find that my favorite sentence in my books is "Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think that the Internet is all grown up." From my point of view, this is a distortion of perspective, one that is very common at MIT. From my point of view, we are in early days and it is time to make the corrections.

Perhaps the greatest ongoing difference of opinion I have had with close colleagues at MIT has been about the meaning and prospect of sociable robots. I take a very strong position in Alone Together that nanny-bots and elder-care bots who pretend affection are seductive. And that my research shows that we are vulnerable to them. We are alone with them, yet we feel a faux-intimacy with them.

Indeed, the arc of the book is that with robots, we are alone and feel a new intimacy. In our new mobile connectivity, we are together with each other, and yet experience new solitudes.

I worked on my studies of sociable robots with colleagues at MIT who are some of the most brilliant and creative developers of sociable robotics. We had deeply-felt, serious conversations about the purposes and possibilities of these machines. Some think that their ultimate significance will be profoundly humanistic. I'm listening, but I am not convinced. Conversations with robots about love, sex, children, the arc of a life - in other words, about human meaning - to me, this has no meaning. These are things that the robot has not experienced. These are not appropriate topics for conversations with robots. So, being at MIT has kept me more aware than I would ever have been about the broad differences of opinion in what the purposes of machines can be.

I took you to task, ever so mildly, in my blog a while back about some of your comments about MIT students and multitasking in the Digital Nations documentary. You can see what I said here. I wanted to offer you a chance to respond to my arguments.

I most often run into our disagreement about multi-tasking in the context of parents who say, "Well, is it so bad if I text while my kid is in the kitchen with me; my mom used to do the dishes while I hung around?" Or, "My dad used the read the newspaper when we watched sports on TV; what's the difference between that and my doing my email while I watch sports with my son on Sunday?"

Having interviewed the children who feel abandoned by their parents, who feel almost desperate for parental attention, has led me to do a lot of thinking about the kinds of attention that digital devices require. We don't give them the kind of attention we gave to doodling or to a newspaper or for that matter, to cooking or watching TV. We are drawn in in quite a different way. This is made apparent when I interview teenagers who say things like "When I was little I used to watch Sunday football with my dad and we would talk. Now, he is on his BlackBerry and he is in the 'Zone.' I can't interrupt him." Or, stories, many stories of daughters who come into the kitchen to hang out with their mothers and find them texting and cannot make eye contact with them and who are shushed away. I observe parents and children in the playground with children desperately trying to get their parents attention; parents are absorbed in their devices and cannot "multi-task" attention for their kids.

So, I think that the narratives we use to think about our students multi-tasking in class needs to be informed by the nature of what it is to absorb oneself in digital media. Beyond this, I am persuaded by the research that suggests that when we multi-task, our performance degrades for each task we multi-task, even as we receive a neurochemical reward for our multi-tasking. So, through no fault of our own, our biology has us feeling better and better even as we do worse and worse.

I do think that smitten by what computers enable us to do, we have allowed multi-tasking to seem like a twenty-first century alchemy. I think that classrooms, will soon be in the position of being the places where uni-tasking is taught, places where students learn to concentrate and where, additionally, they learn to cultivate the capacity for solitude.

I think that the two learning skills that are in the most jeopardy in our hyper-connected world are the ability to concentrate on one thing and the capacity for the kind of solitude that replenishes and restores.

I am going to be running a summer-long conversation on this blog about the value of the autobiographical voice in cultural criticism. You have now edited a series of books where people share autobiographical reflections on what you call evocative objects. Can you explain what you mean by evocative objects and what you think is the contributions of these kinds of reflections?

Evocative objects are objects that cause us to reflect on ourselves or on other things. Put otherwise, they give us materials that help us to do this in new and richer ways. Objects can be evocative for many different reasons. Some of these reasons have been widely studied. So, for example, objects that are "betwixt and between" standard categories are classically evocative because they cause us to reflect on the categories themselves. This is why computational objects, standing between mind and not-mind, between the world of the animate and not animate, have been so evocative as objects-to-think-with.

Other evocative objects partake of elements of what Winnicott called "transitional objects." These are objects that blur the boundaries between self and not-self, object that we experience as being in a special, blurred, sometimes fused relation to self. Here, too computational objects have had a special role to play. From the very beginning, people experienced a kind of "mind meld" when using software, saying things such as "When I use Microsoft Word I see my ideas form someplace between my mind and the screen." Now, in talking about always-on-them digital devices, there is an ever greater sense of the device being part of the body.

Evocative objects provide a special window onto life experience, one that is grounded and cannot avoid issues of depth psychology. Science studies, sociology, anthropology have each in their own way welcomed the study of objects but have been hostile to depth psychology. When one pays careful attention to evocative objects, one "hears" psychodynamic issues, one "hears" family history, one "hears" a close attention to personal narrative and the texture of a life in all of its peculiarity and deeply woven interconnections with others. In science studies, studying objects and life narrative has the additional virtue of making the point, which seems to need making for every new generation of students, that technologies are not "just" tools, that our relationships with objects are profoundly interconnected to how we make meaning out of lives and think through who we are as people.

You describe both children and the elderly being drawn to robots as companions. In your discussion of social networking sites, you seem to accept the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants, implying that generational differences matter in response to those technologies. Do these same differences matter in talking about human relations with robots?

There are of course important differences in how people who grew up with a given technology appropriate it in contrast to those who adopted it in adulthood. But what most fascinates me these days are common vulnerabilities of grownups and younger people, both in the area of communications technology and in the area of sociable robotics. I did many interviews with people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are willing to entertain the idea of a robot that might love them, care for them. But certainly, the sensibility of the "robotic moment," the idea that we are ready for robots that might care for us is most apparent among the young.

Their science fiction and imaginative toy and game worlds suggest to them that robots may soon be in a position to teach people how to love; they have a way of thinking about the nature of aliveness that considers objects with a new pragmatism. That is, previous generations talked about computational objects as "sort of alive" or "kind of alive." This new generation talks of computational objects as "alive enough" to do certain jobs. Robots are thus considered "alive enough" for the job of care and companionship, at the limit, alive for affection.

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.