By Sherry Turkle
Reviewed by Arthur Boers
Writing Workshop Participant ’11
Basic Books, 360 pp., $28.95
Many churches already offer “virtual communion”—allowing people to take part in the Eucharist in the comfort of their own homes while watching on-screen celebrants. “What about adding virtual baptisms to the roster?” our clergy group wondered. To explore that idea, we viewed an online baptism. Through Skype a pastor communicated with a candidate who was dunked by a friend in a bathtub at home. The technologically delayed transmission of voices and the pastor’s uncertainty about the identities or names of some of the people in the bathroom hindered the interaction. To me the ceremony seemed lonely and disconnected. But when a colleague and I raised questions about it, citing concerns about community, incarnation, and sacrament, we were asked if we were “spiritual Luddites.”
I long for careful, discerning discussions about the uses of technology. The church has largely absented itself from such discussions, aside from arguments about internet porn, PowerPoint presentations, or cell phones in worship. But the wider world is paying attention. Matt Richtel does impressive research on technology for the New York Times. Recent noteworthy books on the subject include Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser; Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers; Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson; The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr; and Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, by Naomi Baron.
In this distinguished crowd, Sherry Turkle’s book is among the best—comprehensive, useful, thoroughly researched, and well written. Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a clinical psychologist, previously authored The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. She writes that she was once optimistic and hopeful about the positive potentials of technology. But after interviewing hundreds of people— particularly children, youths, seniors, and professionals involved in communications technologies—she is becoming more and more concerned about how we are being shaped, changed, and formed by technology. It is not, she says, ”just a tool.” Self perceptions, daily conversations, and relationships within families and among friends are being massively reworked. She is no longer convinced by “enduring technological optimism, a belief that as other things go wrong, science will go right.”
Turkle is not shy about promoting technology’s benefits. She and her daughter are sophisticated in their use of technology. But she has many concerns: some people prefer virtual comforts over daily realities; the boundaries between the virtual and the real are steadily eroding; heavily networked people are “always on.” “Insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time,” she writes. “We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.” Technology is becoming “the architect of our intimacies.”
The book’s first part deals with the development of computerized companions. Robots grow increasingly sophisticated. They began as “pets” but are now designed to provide therapeutic counseling, practical care for seniors or children (i.e. vulnerable populations), and even sexual companionship. (Some scholars look forward to the day when we can mate with and marry robots.) Some contend that intimacy with robotic pets, babies, caretakers, and lovers will be superior to and more satisfying than what is offered by “real” in-the-flesh relationships. Will people learn to prefer simulation to authenticity? Technology, Turkle notes, is promising to solve problems of “human vulnerabilities.” It tempts us to lose sight of the benefits of solitude and the importance of “aesthetic inconvenience,” surprises, and “rough patches.” It all amounts to an “emotional dumbing down.” To many people, “no risk” relationships seem safer and less exhausting than the challenges of face-to-face intimacy.
The book’s second part focuses on how always being on and networked affects relationships. On-line time displaces relationships. People are unable to part with gadgets, taking them to bed at night, and fondling them while awake. Day-to-day conversations grow rare and expectations of what conversation, hospitality, and friendship offer all diminish. Conversations focus more and more on convenience. This is not just a matter of evolving etiquette. Studies show that people are growing lonelier even as technologies make them busier. People become insecure and isolated. “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone,” Turkle writes. As relationships are mediated by technology, we are less and less sure of what or whom to trust.
Turkle does not write from an explicitly religious perspective, though she occasionally refers to her own Jewish practices and throws in references to Martin Buber and Thoreau from time to time. She does, however, tell the moving story of a devout Christian whose decades of practicing spiritual disciplines have difficulty standing up to technological distractions. She raises not only psychological questions and concerns but philosophical ones as well.
While this book is stunningly comprehensive, I have one quibble. Turkle resists exploring technology as addiction. Yet technology abets addictions (pornography, gambling, shopping) and is often designed to be addictive. Its users manifest such addictive processes as mood alteration, increasing dependence, and growing tolerance – not to mention denial, dishonesty, control, thinking disorders, grandiosity, and disconnection from feelings. Turkle does not want to use addiction terminology because doing so might suggest that abstinence is necessary. But if technology is addictive, then denial is less than useful.
Perhaps I am a “spiritual Luddite,” whatever that means, but I admire Turkle’s balanced argument that we might be freed “from unbending narratives of technological optimism or despair.” She writes: “We have to love technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us.”
Arthur Boers teaches at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. His latest book is The Way is Made By Walking: A Pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and his next is Technical Difficulties within Our Control: Countering Off-Balance, Out-of-Kilter Ways of Life (Brazos). Arthur has participated in two Collegeville Institute summer writing workshops and one Collegeville Institute seminar.