Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

In this book, Turkle fuses a section about sociable robots with a section about social media usage to basically argue this: social media accustoms us to instrumentalized friendship, and once we are used to that, we are open to crypto relationships with robots, since they offer nothing more than instrumental value. Since we don’t want the “drama” of reciprocal real-time sociality anyway, there is basically no difference from our point of view between another person and a robot. They are both merely mirrors for ourselves anyway. To a narcissist, every other person is always already a robot.

The book is mainly anecdotal, full of little kids’ reactions to robots and teenagers’ accounts of their feelings about having to route their social lives through online social networks and text messages. My favorite is Brad, who is my hero, having restored my hope for teenagers. He quits Facebook and is very articulate about the suffocating, stultifying reflexivity social media induce. Turkle’s commentary can be maddeningly repetitive at times. She tends to come across as a “What about the children?!” concern troll, deploying all sorts of rhetorical questions to try to persuade us that children are going to be psychologically harmed by the current drift of technology. She is prone to assuming that digital life is subordinate rather than complementary to social life in general, and that online identity is inherently inauthentic rather than partially constitutive of identity in general. It’s not as though digital identity is an inauthentic or falsified representation of “real” identity; identity in general is fluid, multiple. Turkle sometimes seems to worry that “real” identity is being thwarted by online sociality, which fosters some sort of inauthentic identity. But while her subjects sometimes use those terms to describe their predicament, they are misleading. Authenticity is a pressing personal issue now not because it has been suddenly lost, but because it has become the accounting system for a different form of mediated selfhood; it has become another metric in the attention economy, measuring how believable one is to oneself in the process of broadcasting a self.

Wise young Brad notes that “Online life is about premeditation” — but so also is the concern for authenticity. It entails a kind of alienation so that you can judge yourself in terms of some ideal for yourself that is supposed to be not an ideal at all but one’s natural self. But it is altogether unnatural to be checking in with yourself about how natural you are being. Direct experience of oneself is impossible, so assessing one’s authenticity is too — but one can
judge the authenticity of one’s online profile, or the impression others seem to have of you. That is the narcissistic trap social media sets out for us.

But it is a trap also to imagine one can have some sort of direct experience of others, as if you could see the “real” person outside social media. We can’t access the other’s consciousness; it is always an objective performance from the outside. Nobody can ever show you their “real” self.

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