Jonah Lehrer reviews Sherry Turkle’s latest book “Alone Together” and finds her interpretations, with regard to how we interact with one another via the web, have swung like a pendulum. In fifteen years, the web has gone from ‘mostly optimistic… postmodern playhouse’ of identity creation, to a a more troubling foreshadow of human interaction.
…If the Internet is such an alienating force, then why can’t we escape it? If Facebook is so insufferable, then why do hundreds of millions of people check their page every day? Why did I just text my wife instead of calling her?
I certainly don’t expect Turkle to have all the answers, but her ethnographic portraits would have benefited from a more probing investigation of such questions. The teenagers she quotes complain about everything — phones, texting, e-mail, Skype. And yet, virtually none of them seem willing to turn off the digital spigot.
Perhaps this is because, despite our misgivings about the Internet, its effects on real-life relationships seem mostly positive, if minor. A 2007 study at Michigan State University involving 800 undergraduates, for instance, found that Facebook users had more social capital than abstainers, and that the site increased measures of “psychological well-being,” especially in those suffering from low self-esteem. Other studies have found that frequent blogging leads to increased levels of social support and integration and may serve as “the core of building intimate relationships.” One recurring theme to emerge from much of this research is that most people, at least so far, are primarily using the online world to enhance their offline relationships, not supplant them.
Needless to say, the portrait painted by these studies is very different from the one in Turkle’s fascinating, readable and one-sided book. We are so eager to take sides on technology, to describe the Web in utopian or dystopian terms, but maybe that’s the problem. In the end, it’s just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.