Book Review: Alone Together

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Turkle, Sherry. Alone together : why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books, 2011.

When Duke’s Bostock Library was dedicated in 2005, the speaker from EDUCOM noted that the current generation of students used technology constantly to communicate. Students with cell phones and email were far more “connected” than students from the past. Yet while walking to the ceremony, I had passed a dozen students talking on their cell phones, and not one made eye contact as they passed by. They were oblivious to everything happening around them, as they gave their attention to someone far away.

Now we are in a world of texting, IMing and Facebook messaging through mobile devices 24/7. In a new book Alone Together, a faculty member at MIT says that young people monitor their smartphones constantly, at home, at school and when out with friends. They live in a world of continual partial attention. Instead of a personal and immediate contact of a telephone call, these young people text, making a connection when and where they want, with total control of their message. Texting allows them to keep in touch and keep at bay at the same time, substituting a quick message for connecting with each other face-to-face or voice-to-voice.

Young people report that they receive hundreds of texts per day, yet they feel lonely. They have hundreds of Facebook friends, yet no one knows them. Their profile is an attractive persona shaped by what other people may think. Control has replaced spontaneity. Followers have replaced friends. While students report that this world is stressful, they feel compelled to stay connected, and they are unable to pull the plug on this seductive technology, even as they long for a simpler time.

This engrossing discussion is the second part of the book. The first part is about sociable robots, which offer companionship without demands of friendship. These robots are safe and predictable, and applications for disadvantaged young and lonely old people seem promising. But even if children are open to humanlike teachers or babysitters, is that what we want? Of the many books published about technology and its effect on society, this one is particularly thoughtful.

© Reviewer: Meg Trauner & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
All rights reserved.


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