Gift me a robotic seal when I turn sixty

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is about our increasingly digital world. To be specific, it is a (limited) study of how humans interact with this digital world, and how it changes us. Her thesis is presented in two parts.

From the introduction, about what she calls the robotic moment:

Now—for adults and children—robots are not seen as machines but as “creatures,” and then, for most people, the quotation marks are dropped. Curiosity gives way to a desire to care, to nurture. From there, we look toward companionship and more. So, for example, when sociable robots are given to the elderly, it is with the suggestion that robots will cure the troubles of their time of life. We go from curiosity to a search for communion. In the company of the robotic, people are alone, yet feel connected: in solitude, new intimacies.

And the second part of the book is about the networked cyberspace:

In virtual worlds and computer games, people are flattened into personae. On social networks, people are reduced to their profiles. On our mobile devices, we often talk to each other on the move and with little disposable time—so little, in fact, that we communicate in a new language of abbreviation in which letters stand for words and emoticons for feelings. … We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes.

Robotic companionship does not feature in my memories. I did not know what a Furby (an electronic owl) or Tamagotchi (a pet inside a screen) or My Real Baby (a creepy robotic doll, which is standard design as far as dolls go) was until I read this book. I wasn’t aware of Paro the (cute?) robotic seals that the lonely elderly rubbed and talked to. I haven’t been confused by this simulation of life, and as a child, I did not tend to the needs of a creature that was both not alive and alive enough.

I was looking forward to the second part, since I am now at that point where I can say “I have been online for more than half my life” without sounding silly, and because the time I spend online has only increased in recent years. There simply isn’t a time I am not online, except when I lose connectivity due to circumstances, or when I require solitude without the pings. I present different, often overlapping, sides of my personality on various platforms. On Instagram, I am sometimes serious, a consumer of what I hope passes for literature. On Twitter, I am irreverent. On Facebook, I am silent, watching the proceedings with absolute indifference. Discourses die and bigots are made. Cliques emerge everywhere. I remember the mIRC chat rooms and the family friend who introduced me to them, I remember hi5 and Orkut, the thrill of speaking to someone far removed from you, the secrecy, everything happened on stolen time because the phone couldn’t be kept engaged for longer than thirty minutes. I enjoy the disembodied nature of these conversations; though I do find video calls quite bizarre, I would rather imagine the person and wait to actually meet them.

The people that Turkle interviews are always complaining about the internet. Teenagers apparently do not know how to log off; they are preoccupied with what they must showcase to the world. They are nostalgic for a past they haven’t lived, yearning for the time human connection implied attention, wondering idly about writing letters and then going on to share that thought with Facebook ‘friends’. Parents want to track their children’s every move. Mothers worry about late replies and put on makeup before Skype calls with their daughters. Turkle’s subjects also appear to belong to the same demographic, severely restricting the scope of her observations. Who are these people with seemingly unlimited access to technological innovations, who are these unsupervised children? Do they all live within five miles of MIT?

Turkle posits that we are scared of living out our actual lives, that we prefer to communicate our feelings through blogs, resort to text messages as if we are in an eternal hurry, enact our identities in online role-playing games, speak to strangers in fleeting ways. I’m not sure if the prognosis is as dire as the author claims. It is mostly one-sided, without delving into the way learning has been facilitated by the internet, or how everyone without access to knowledge and platforms previously can now hope to have them, even if virtual. Surely we can be trusted to understand the distinction between life as it happens, and chat bubbles in an app? Or we will make enough foolish mistakes for ourselves and others to learn from.

Tech bros vacuously claiming that technology can solve all of our problems is indeed tiresome, and perhaps Turkle is just being careful, warning us of the addiction that can surface. But it is not just digital natives who become addicted to the promise of unlimited and ephemeral connectivity; anyone who knows about India’s Whatsapp epidemic can attest to that.

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