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Turkle, pt. 2


As a marked contrast to her earlier work, Sherry Turkle (2011) is now much more critical about the impact of the Web in our lives, particularly how it negatively impacts our development of identity awareness and how we socialize with others. While she tackled topics such as emotional distance, the myth of multitasking, Internet addiction, always-on fatigue, identity anxiety, and online privacy, she—as the subtitle to her book suggests—has one major concern, as evidenced in this passage from Alone Together:

we expect more from technology and less from each other. This puts us at the still center of a perfect storm. Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners. (p. 295)

Turkle was now troubled that everyone (though especially teens) can be too tempted by easy, controllable distractions. By giving in to these distractions, she argued, adolescents fail to learn about their emotions, thus avoiding complex, social, face-to-face interactions. Being always connected, always on, even in solitude, we think about our online presentation of self and remain anxious about our need to respond to others who are also always on. “In solitude,” Turkle (2011) argued, “we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding” (p. 203).

Turkle is, of course, conscious of such a change in her opinion, and referenced as much in her recent TED talk (Turkle, 2012). In the talk, she recollected how in 1996 she found herself on the cover of WIRED magazine because her research suggested what many “Californian utopian” technologists had been intimating for some time—that networked technology could bring about better living. She recalled being optimistic that “we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world.” However, years later, now she believed “that we’re letting it [technology, specifically cell phones] take us places that we don’t want to go” (2012). Turkle's 2012 TED talk can be seen here (though 0:12-4:23 are of specific relevance):

In many ways, the main technology at the center of this shift in Turkle’s conclusions has been the cell phone, in general, and the smartphone, in particular. Looking back, Turkle (2011) observed that “Within a decade, what had seemed alien was close to becoming everyone’s way of life, as compact smartphones replaced the cyborgs’ more elaborate accoutrements. . . . We are all cyborgs now” (p. 152). Certainly aware of her feminist posthuman theory, Turkle reflected on her earlier beliefs concerning fragmented identities, finding that, contrary to the potential of fragmentation, “in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves” (p. 11–12).

A clear representation of these two “Turklean” perspectives on cell phones—how they can bring us together and isolate us from each other—is offered in the following two videos, one a 2013 commercial for Apple’s FaceTime video chat software and the other a short film called I Forgot My Phone written by Charlene deGuzman and directed by Miles Crawford from 2013.

While the Apple commercial represented the smartphone as a device that connects us with each other and provides the opportunity for increased socialization, the other video represented smartphones as displacing human-to-human interaction. Instead of promoting a utopian sharing, where the phone facilitates a range of deeper interconnections, I Forgot My Phone suggested that cell phones have become powerful mediators for the everyday activities within which we used to be more fully immersed.