A follow-up to the recent post about Facebook making us sad is the full-length review in the NY Times of MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She’s basically exploring the psychological side effects of the Internet, which of course, have an enormous amount to do with identity, anxiety, control and what we call the Law. Although one does detect a slight air of curmudgeonliness (“in my day…”), and some of the insights may strike you as awfully self-evident, it nevertheless sounds like a worthwhile and important book:
Many of the adolescents cited in her book express a decided distaste for using the phone. One high school sophomore says telephone calls mean you have to have a conversation and conversations are “almost always too prying, it takes too long, and it is impossible to say ‘good-bye.’ ” Another student says: “When you talk on the phone, you don’t really think about what you’re saying as much as in a text. On the telephone, too much might show.”
Texts, in other words, offer more control — and the ability to keep one’s feelings at a distance. Many young people “prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net,” Ms. Turkle writes. “It gives them an alternative to processing emotions in real time.”
Noting that the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson regarded identity play as part of the work of adolescence, she argues that the Net not only supplies teenagers with lots of opportunities to explore who they are and what they aspire to but also generates added anxiety, heightening peer pressure and encouraging many to construct, edit and perform a “self” in an effort to win friends and influence.
Of an interview subject she calls Brad, Ms. Turkle writes: “Brad says, only half jokingly, that he worries about getting ‘confused’ between what he ‘composes’ for his online life and who he ‘really’ is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn’t really know are true. It burdens him that the things he says online affect how people treat him in the real. People already relate to him based on things he has said on Facebook. Brad struggles to be more ‘himself’ there, but this is hard. He says that even when he tries to be ‘honest’ on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site ‘to make the right impression.’ ”
There are other consequences to constant networking as well. When we are always tethered to our offices, our families, our friends — even when hiking in the woods or walking by the ocean — then solitude becomes increasingly elusive, and creative, contemplative, carefully considered thought increasingly gives way to immediate, sometimes ill-considered reactions.
At times, Ms. Turkle can sound primly sanctimonious, complaining for instance that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: “These people are not my friends,” she writes, “yet somehow I miss their presence.” Such sentimental whining undermines the larger and important points she wants to make in this volume — the notion that technology offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy and communication without emotional risk, while actually making people feel lonelier and more overwhelmed.