Alone Together by Sherry Turkle is a 2011 analysis of how technology has transformed the way people react with one another on an individual level. Despite being published a decade ago, the book is chock full of observations and takeaways relevant to the present day. Turkle’s early concerns with the impacts of overwhelming technological stimulation on relationships has increased hundredfold in the past 10 years, particularly amid the COVID-19 lockdowns.
In Alone Together, Turkle investigates adolescent attitudes toward social media platforms like Facebook and MySpace, as well as the impact texting and constant connections to smartphones (then, Blackberries) had on individuals. Then, Facebook users paid meticulous attention to their image, something that has only increased with the rise of Instagram influencers. Like early Facebook users, many of today’s social media users coordinate their online personas as if to advertise their own personal brand. While social media platforms were originally marketed to connect its users, the intense inclination to project a desirable, perfected version of ourselves only disconnects us from one another, as we are more caught up in what strangers may think of a certain photo on our page than in paying attention to fostering meaningful, human connections. The recent revelations of the Facebook whistleblower only prove this hypothesis. On a more personal level, the narcissistic tendency to advertise oneself extensively online has spread beyond the realm of social media to dating applications like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. Users seeking some sort of connection–be it romantic or a fleeting sexual encounter–must advertise themselves with enough detail and uniqueness to stand out, but concisely enough so as not to drive away potential mates. Essentially, this sort of dating commodifies individuals, reducing complex and flawed persons to profiles composed of filtered, manufactured photos. These phenomena beg the question as to whether connections made using these platforms are as legitimate as meeting someone in person–after all, isn’t someone sitting alone at a bar in a cocktail dress just as manufactured as someone compiling a compelling dating profile?
Turkle hit upon this idea with regard to perhaps outdated online dating platforms, as well as the increasing existence of robotic and computer-based companionship, a la Joaquin Pheonix’s Her. She questioned the significance of increasing automation and robotics, including ZuZu Pets and Real Alive Baby Dolls; with the recent announcement of Tesla’s potential “humanoid” robot, in addition to terrifying videos of Boston Dynamics robots, the concern over automation is predictably greater now than it was when Alone Together was originally published. How is having a robotic dog–complete with a recorded bark and covered in fur–any different than a child interacting with the real mutt? While Turkle does demonstrate that there is an element of the Uncanny Valley to these artificial relationships, she has a difficult time pinning down why that phenomena colors the nature of artificial relationships.
For this, let me suggest a thought exercise: Imagine a woman, reminiscent of Racheal in Bladerunner. She’s not a real woman, but is an android, yet she looks, walks, talks, acts, and feels like a human woman. Imagine her creators were somehow able to include in her programming the release of chemicals identical to hormones and neurotransmitters found in a human woman. Would the identical compounds be enough to make this android woman into a human, especially if those compounds helped her feel emotions and sensations that humans feel? If the compounds were identical, would it matter that they were essentially man-made?
While the minutia of this thought experiment is not necessarily something we have to deal with in the present day, the themes are still relevant to Turkle’s book, including the question of whether our current relationship to technology can ever replicate the organic. With regard to the artificial connections described in Turkle’s book, my belief is that no, the artificial version is not and can never be as legitimate as the “real thing.” In the case of the far-off-in-the-future replicated humanoid, my answer remains the same. From my perspective, even if in practice and composition two things are essentially identical, I believe that the organic version of such a thing (in this case, an actual human) possesses a quality the recreated version can never attain – fallabilty, randomness, and unpredictability. Even the most brilliant roboticists can’t necessarily account for the spontaneity of human interactions; that’s why fields of study like economics are so lofty–they hinge on the idea that humans are logical, which we have continually proven not to be. What logical species would create weapons that could easily spell our demise, for example?
To me, a replicated connection or replicated being is inherently “logical” due to the precise calculations needed to create robots, computer simulations, and the like, at least with our current technological capabilities. These robots and computer simulations would need a defined set of parameters for different characteristics; in the android example, the parameters for the levels of certain hormones would need to fit in a defined set of levels. Who gets to determine these parameters? Are parameters the same for all replicated beings that are created? Can the parameters be a range of levels? Alternatively, human diversity in size, shape, outlooks, life circumstances, inherited characteristics, etc. creates a wide and spontaneous range of individuals. Because of this, when individuals commune, it creates something beautiful, tapping into our nature as social beings. Since robots, computers, and hypothetical androids would not have the evolutionary drive for social connection that has been fostered over hundreds of thousands of years, these relationships are not reciprocal, and never can be. The experience of relationships with these things–ranging from interacting with manufactured online profiles to robots to future creations–will continually remind us of the lack of actual human relationships, and actually make us more alone (hence being “alone together”).
Perhaps humans are more predictable than I assert; on a macro level, our individual deviations average out. I’m no expert or philosopher, and I could be just writing complete BS and completely skipping over important questions and considerations. But for what it is worth, I still feel that the organic, innate spontaneity of humanity is more tangibly relatable than any connection with any replication, no matter how real. As such, I take Turkle’s analysis and study of our relationship with technology as a word of warning, and believe you should, too.