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on 20 March 2011
'Alone Together' is the third volume in a trilogy produced over three decades by Sherry Turkle, a psychoanalyst based at MIT, the preceding volumes being 'The Second Self' (1984) and 'Life on the Screen' (1995). I read each one soon after publication and found them engrossing, thought-provoking and well-illustrated with illuminating case-studies and insightful observations. The current volume is in two parts: the first develops themes from 'The Second Self' (here related to `sociable robots'), the second from 'Life on the Screen' (which focused on the construction of identities online). Because of the limitations of space, my comments here focus on Part Two. Whereas the earlier volumes were relatively upbeat about the implications of new technologies, the tone of the current volume feels markedly more jaundiced, alerting us to some potential social costs of `social media'.

Provocatively, the main refrain is that in an online culture we are always connected (Turkle says `tethered'), but are rarely (meaningfully) connecting. Although (somewhat ironically) one may hear the same sentiment in a current commercial for a well-known matchmaking website, Turkle's nuanced stance `is not romantically nostalgic, not Luddite in the least'; indeed, she remains `cautiously optimistic'. This is a seriously reflective work well-informed by extensive ethnographic studies. The focus on authenticity and intimacy recalls the concerns voiced by Socrates in Plato's 'Phaedrus' about an earlier technological development--publishing one's ideas in written form--in particular the fear that communication at a distance would undermine genuine (face-to-face) human discourse. This has been a recurrent anxiety throughout the history of communication technologies. As the title suggests, this book reveals and explores unresolved tensions and contradictions in our attitudes and behaviour in relation to the latest manifestations of these technologies.

Distance communication in all of its forms (print media, broadcasting, telecommunications, online) tends to facilitate what the sociologists call `weak (or loose) ties'. One sociological argument is that society at large depends on the maintenance of loose ties between distant acquaintances and those we know only indirectly, functioning as a sort of social glue, in addition to the strong ties and commitments that bind us rather more closely to our `immediate' family and `close' friends. As a psychoanalyst, however, the author argues that the personal cost may be that we are coming to rely too much on online communication with relative strangers at the expense of intimacy with, and commitment to the people we know from face-to-face interaction. For instance, her earlier enthusiasm for online worlds as `identity workshops' is tempered by a concern that the mediation of a screen encourages more premeditated behaviour, which has in turn led many teenagers to prefer texting to speaking on the phone because speech `reveals too much'.

Ethnographic approaches are particularly useful in highlighting illuminating instances that may raise broader issues. Although such studies do not enable global generalizations, they can help to frame hypotheses for further research and reflection. This is indeed a book to be read and re-read. Sherry Turkle's timely critique reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's caveat that `we are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies.' The always accessible style of her writing encourages engagement rather than closure, so that anyone who has paused to reflect on the implications of Facebook for friendship or of mobile phones for solitude is likely to find themselves entering into an imaginary debate with the author, countering the Platonic anxiety that reading is antisocial, and thus reminding us that whatever the apparent affordances of a particular technology, maintaining a well-informed critical perspective can reduce our vulnerabilities.
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on 19 June 2011
Turkle's excellent book attempts to balance the flow of enthusiasm for digital technology and techno-boosterism of sci-fi style futures by examining how humans as social actors engage with technology. It is a forlorn hope that some symmetry could be achieved with the raging determinism of the technology corporates with their blythe dismissal of most of Turkle's objections, but this joins a growing list of critical works about the ethics and implications of technology as determined by technologists. It certainly seems clear from this book that creative, empathetic, intelligent and enquiring minds are developing the very technologies that will reduce these qualities in the rest of us.

In effect, this is two books. The first half deals with the kind of interactive robotics that can be introduced precisely because of our neglect of one another: comfort robots for the elderly and interactive ones for kids. The stories that emerge from Turkle's observations of interactions between people and machines in this context are unquestionably disturbing. The common justification is that, given most people working in old age or child care don't bring their human qualities to bear in their work, so what if a robot replaces them? So, here we have the best minds of the age working in well funded labs to design robots that will release us from our obligations towards one another. Robots, Turkle warns, will turn out even better than humans as they won't ever let us down, and the idea clearly alarms her.

The second section is about how the always-on network has altered our perception of social engagement with one another. Turkle seems perfectly aware that her nostalgia for letter writing, or for hard copy photos, is little more than that, and though she can't help missing them, she also shows how their replacements have us all working overtime to keep up. Groups of young people offer up their experiences of growing up with digital tech determining their environment, and their caution about the meaning of these technologies is actually quite heartening. Whether they will prove capable of holding out against the onslaught of techological corporatism is another matter, and not an uncomplicated one.

A must read for anyone concerned about the nature and impact of technology on our encounters with one another.
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on 12 November 2015
I still think about this book, even a couple of years after I read it - perhaps because what it has to say is increasingly relevant. Although I think the chapters on robots are less relevant and less interesting (who uses tomogotchi anymore?), I think what they have to say about humans emotionally identifying with technology does set the reader up for the very important second half of the book, which talks about how our social relationships have been heavily influences by technology. It surprised me, for example, that teenagers never use the telephone anymore because it causes so much anxiety! That spontaneous-being in the world has kind of ceased to exist, only to be replaced by the well-crafted social media persona. The proposed effects of this are both interesting and devastating and I think everyone - especially parents - should read this book. In fact, I hope she writes an update in a few years so we can chart how we've progressed in an increasingly digital environment. (I don't, for the record, think that the internet is a bad thing! Just that we should all be more aware of how we use it and how it impacts and will impact our lives.)
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on 23 June 2013
I really wanted to like this book. Honestly I did, it deals with a fascinating topic. Sadly however, I found this far too anecdotal, repetitive and bias. Her point felt laboured, the anti-technology rhetoric was tiring and she seldom gets into any great depth on an issue. I felt she was able to point out a fairly evident phenomenon such as people texting more and calling less but failed to deeply analyse it beyond showing the angst and frustrations it brought teenagers. I do believe "we are all cyborgs now", as a young person I can see our behaviour is changing, our generation is different, this book just never really showed me the fundamental psychological changes that are occuring or where they will lead, beyond the somewhat ludicrous suggestion that we will all want to marry robots in 2020.

Although her anecdotal evidence is considerable, I seldom found it convincing as an argument for anything in a general sense. What's more, many of the problems she pointed to, weren't shown to be explicitly caused or exacerbated by our connectivity or technology. The teenagers she interviews sound like stereotypical teenagers, with stereotypical problems about identity, sex, image etc. She doesn't show that facebook is the problem, rather than just a new way to express and work with their problems. For example she quotes "Adam", an addicted video gamer, who admits he doesn't really like his job. Without doubt he is a sad example of addiction and the power of very clever video designers, but to me the example says more about Adam, and the problems with his real life, than the omnipotent pervasive technology. In another age perhaps he would have been an alcoholic, a drug user, or a problem gambler.

Finally, the anecdotes and her own personal references made her line of argument at times incoherent and unclear. You had to flip back a couple of pages, to figure out exactly where she was going with a particular story of teenage trauma.

Basically a lot of what she claims may be true, some of it sounds dubious, I was just expecting a more thorough treatment of the topic, there were very few moments which were truly thought provoking or original.
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on 14 February 2015
A highly thoughtful elaboration of key ethical issues concerning us today and into the foreseeable future. The blending of Sherry Turkle's personal voice with her considerable experience and diligent research produced a most authentic view of very complex processes that need figuring out in both philosophical and practical ways. The story of the journalistic who conflated marriage to robots with same-sex marriage was a sobering moment in the book in ways which resonating with the trouble with what we now should consider as enlightened or regressive politically. I'm motivated to go back and re-read all of Turkle's works for their deep sense of hope blended the need to just 'keep thinking'.
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on 24 February 2011
Sherry Turkle is one of the most interesting minds in the world of interfaces, our world, that is: technology and society, human mind and computers, psychology and the computer screen. Her trilogy is seminal work. This book hits many nails and represents a reflective platform to understand the world of relationships, connectivity (not the same), time and space in the digital era etc. Her voice is very much needed, and one can hear clear and loud - unusual qualities for a psychoanalyst! She has done it again, and it;s a pleasure to follow her thoughts, her reflections and her postulates. Ah, I forgot, the best is the epilogue
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on 27 March 2014
What we all really know but are a little afraid to admit.
Whilst Sherry Turckle - may not have all the answers, this book, no doubt, will ultimately be seen as an important catalyst for further debate and may just give us the strength to put our own collective heads above the parapet out say out loud that developments and modernity are not always 'for the best'.
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on 5 July 2013
A refreshing antidote to the slack-jawed utopianism of so much that is written about the Web and its impact on our lives. Unlike the droves of vacuous cheerleaders for the 'always on' culture. Turkle draws on many years of scrupulously conducted research, and it is fascinating to see how her earlier, much more positive views have been modified to reflect her findings. The fact that she also includes elements of personal anecdote from her own life adds greatly to the book's readability, and to the power of its message.
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on 3 August 2012
I decided to buy this book after watching Sherry Turkle for TED talks! This is the first book i have read by her and I find it absolutely interesting and quite life changing!
It is very straightforward and her researches are easy to follow! I love books from which you can learn something! And this one teach you more about our mad super technology-based era!
I would recommend it to anyone interested in cultural and social studies!
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on 6 March 2016
I haven't quite finished reading this book, I'm a 3rd of the way through. So far there's lots of talk about trials with robots and children. At times I find the writing a bit clunky and formulaic. I'm waiting to get to the good bit about where the impact of technology on our lives is headed. For the time-being it is mainly fascinating learning about the research being carried out on robots and how we relate to them.
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