By replacing solitude with technology, one also loses the capacity to form real attachments with people, says Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of Psychology, delivers her TED talk on the dangers of technology. This is her second talk; the first, delivered in 1996, found her excited about using technology to improve our quality of life.

Now she cautions, “Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied technologies of mobile communication, and what I’ve found is that our little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing,” says Turkle as she shows shots of how we are “texting” all the time.

“We are getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to all the different places they want to be in, because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. They only pay attention to the bits that interest them but that way you can end up hiding from each other, even while we’re constantly connected.” And here Turkle makes an important point. She says people prefer to write because they are then able to put themselves always in the Goldilocks zone — they can have people at a distance at which they can control.

A conversation takes place in real time and so you cannot control what you’re going to say. “So, the bottom line is texting, email, posting, all of these let us present the self we want to be. We get to edit and that means we get to delete, retouch… not too little, not too much, just right. Human relationships are rich and messy. We clean them up with technology,” says Turkle. This way, she says, we are sacrificing conversation for connection. “We use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.”

Turkle talks about how they used a robot to comfort an old lady who had lost a child. She found the old woman pouring her heart out and the robot responding very well, what we would call pretend empathy if it came from humans. “What have we come to?” asks Turkle. “Those phones are changing our minds and hearts because they are gratifying three of our fantasies. One, we can pour our attention wherever we want it to be. Two, that we will always be heard. And, three, that we will never be alone. And that third idea is central to changing our psyches. And when people are alone even at traffic points, they panic and reach out for a device. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts even as we are having them. The problem with this ‘I share therefore I am’ regime is that we almost don’t feel ourselves. We connect more and more but that way set ourselves up for being more isolated — you get isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel alive. We’re not able to appreciate who they are.”

Turkle has some solutions too: Think of solitude as a good thing and start making room for it. Create sacred spaces at home and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same at work. Learn to listen to each other. Technology is making a bid to redefine human connections. Recognise your vulnerability and spend the evening at a pub and not social network,” says Turkle, making a case for building relationships and not just making connections..

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