In 1995, Sherry Turkle, a professor of the “social studies of science” at M.I.T., published a book about identity in the digital age called “Life on the Screen.” It was a mostly optimistic account, as Turkle celebrated the freedom of online identity. Instead of being constrained by the responsibilities of real life, Turkle argued, people were using the Web to experiment, trying on personalities like pieces of clothing. As one online user told her, “You are who you pretend to be.”
“Alone Together” is really two separate books. The first half is about social robots, those sci-fi androids that promise (one day) to sweep the kitchen floor, take care of our aging parents and provide us with reliable companionship. As always, though, she’s less interested in the machines than in our relationships with them. Turkle begins with the troubling observation that we often seek out robots as a solution to our own imperfections, as an easy substitute for the difficulty of dealing with others.
Just look at Roxxxy, a $3,000 talking sex robot that comes preloaded with six different girlfriend personalities, from Frigid Farrah to Young Yoko. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with the kind of desperate loneliness that would lead someone to buy a life-size plastic gadget with three “inputs.” And yet, as Turkle argues, Roxxxy is emblematic of a larger danger, in which the prevalence of robots makes us unwilling to put in the work required by real human relationships. “Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free,” Turkle writes. “But when one becomes accustomed to ‘companionship’ without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming.” A blind date can be a fraught proposition when there’s a robot at home that knows exactly what we need. And all she needs is a power outlet.
The reason robots are such a slippery slope, according to Turkle, is that they take advantage of a deeply human instinct. When it comes to the perception of other minds, we are extremely gullible, bestowing agency on even the most inanimate of objects. After children spend a few minutes playing with a Tamagotchi — a wildly popular “digital pet” — they begin to empathize with the “needs” and “feelings” of the plastic device. And it’s not just little kids: Turkle describes the behavior of Edna, an 82-year-old who is given a robotic doll called My Real Baby during a visit with her 2-year-old great-granddaughter. When Edna is asked if the doll is alive, she scoffs at the absurdity of the question. But then the doll starts to cry. Edna cradles the robot in her arms and gently caresses its face. “Oh, why are you crying?” she asks the robot. “Do you want to sit up?” When her great-granddaughter starts whining, Turkle reports, Edna ignores her.
After exploring the often disturbing world of social robots — we treat these objects like people — Turkle abruptly pivots to the online world, in which we have “invented ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects.” She rejects the thesis she embraced 15 years earlier, as she notes that the online world is no longer a space of freedom and reinvention. Instead, we have been trapped by Facebook profiles and Google cache, in which verbs like “delete” and “erase” are mostly metaphorical. Turkle quotes one high school senior who laments the fact that everything he’s written online will always be around, preserved by some omniscient Silicon Valley server. “You can never escape what you did,” he says.
But Turkle isn’t just concerned with the problem of online identity. She seems most upset by the banalities of electronic interaction, as our range of expression is constrained by our gadgets and platforms. We aren’t “happy” anymore: we’re simply a semicolon followed by a parenthesis. Instead of talking on the phone, we send a text; instead of writing wistful letters, we edit our Tumblr blog. (Turkle cites one 23-year-old law student who objects when friends apologize online: “Saying you are sorry as your status . . . that is not an apology. That is saying ‘I’m sorry’ to Facebook.”) And yet, as Turkle notes, these trends show no sign of abating, as people increasingly gravitate toward technologies that allow us to interact while inattentive or absent. Our excuse is always the same — we’d love to talk, but there just isn’t time. Send us an e-mail. We’ll get back to you.