TED Radio Hour
10:58 am
Fri August 16, 2013

Are We Plugged-In, Connected, But Alone?

Originally published on Fri February 28, 2014 7:36 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Do We Need Humans?

About Sherry Turkle's TEDTalk

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle looks at how devices and online personas are redefining human connection. She says we need to really think about the kinds of connections we want to have.

About Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships with others, with ourselves, with it. Described as the "Margaret Mead of digital culture," Turkle is currently focusing on the world of social media and sociable robots. In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation.

Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. But Turkle suggests that digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. She is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So one day a few years ago, an MIT professor named Sherry Turkle saw something that would change almost everything she believed because up until that point, Sherry Turkle was the poster child for the tech revolution, literally.

SHERRY TURKLE: I was on the cover of "Wired" magazine.

RAZ: The April 1996 issue, and she was a total evangelist for all the new ways we were interacting with technology.

TURKLE: My idea was that we would use what we learned in the virtual world to better our lives in the real world.

RAZ: Anyway, that day, Sherry went to a nursing home. It was outside Boston, and she went there to see something absolutely amazing. Sherry and her graduate students would watch an elderly patient at that home interact with a robot, a sociable robot named Paro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOT NOISE)

TURKLE: It looked like a baby harp seal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You OK? Yeah, OK ...

TURKLE: It had fur, it had big eyes with large eyelashes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pretty eyes ...

TURKLE: It knew language enough to respond sort of appropriately.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, how are you?

TURKLE: If you were sad, it made, you know, kind of comforting sad noises.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're a sweetie, you know...

TURKLE: I mean, it was designed to comfort the elderly. And this robot was with an older woman who'd lost a child. And there was a group of us standing around - my research assistants, the head of the nursing home, a bunch of nurses - to watch the reaction of this older woman. And she was pouring out her heart about losing this child, and she was comforted by this robot. This robot made her feel understood.

RAZ: It was amazing. The researchers couldn't believe how well this old woman was responding to a robot, to Paro.

TURKLE: I looked around and saw that this was being appreciated as progress.

RAZ: Everyone who was in that room started to imagine the possibilities. Paro as friend to old people, to lonely people, to kids in hospitals. And Sherry Turkle was right there; and she was watching it all happen, right before her eyes.

TURKLE: And I felt profoundly depressed. This was a tremendous emotional turning point for m, in my research.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, "My Robot, My Friend, My Replacement" - the promise, and the peril, of how we relate to our technology. We're going to hear from TED speakers who all believe this new technology is starting to change who we are as humans, who we actually are. Some say for the better, and some for the worse.

So Sherry Turkle, as you've probably guessed, is really worried about where all this is headed. And when she gave her TED talk, she described that moment watching this old woman pouring her heart out to a robotic seal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY TURKLE TED TALK)

TURKLE: I felt myself at the cold, hard center of a perfect storm. We expect more from technology, and less from each other. And I ask myself, why have things come to this? And I believe it's because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable; we're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

RAZ: Isn't there a part of you that looked at that interaction and thought it was amazing? I mean, here was this woman who had suffered a profound loss, at some point in her life - she had lost a child - and she was responding to this robot. And it might not have been real, but it was real to her.

TURKLE: Well, no, I don't think it's amazing. And what was extraordinary, to me, is that although she was surrounded by people who were in a position to understand her story, we were kind of applauding and stepping back, and cheering on her connection to a machine that understood nothing. And I really felt - what are we doing? Why are we, essentially, outsourcing the thing that defines us as people? You know, we care for our young; we care for our old; and outsourcing it to something that we knew was essentially, deceiving her by tricks into thinking that it cared for her at all. You know, that was how ...

RAZ: So when Sherry Turkle gave her TED Talk last year, it was like a public confessional because 15 years earlier, she also gave a TED talk, a very different one. It was a talk about how social technology would help us become better, more productive human beings. But then, she changed her mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY TURKLE TED TALK)

TURKLE: Over the past 15 years, I've studied technologies of mobile communication, and I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people - young and old - about their plugged-in lives. And what I've found is that our little devices...

(CELLPHONE BUZZ)

TURKLE: ...it's those little devices in our pockets...

(CELLPHONE NOTIFICATION SOUNDS)

TURKLE: ...are so psychologically powerful...

(CELL PHONE NOTIFICATION SOUNDS)

TURKLE: ...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. But they've quickly come to seem familiar.

People text or do e-mail during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings. People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you're texting.

(LAUGHTER)

TURKLE: People explain to me that it's hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do e-mail at breakfast and at dinner, while their children complain about not having their parents' full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention. And we even text at funerals. I study this. We remove ourselves from our grief or from our reverie, and we go into our phones.

Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble - trouble, certainly, in how we relate to each other; but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves, in our capacity for self-reflection. We're 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. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them, is control over where they put their attention. So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you. And some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other.

RAZ: OK, Sherry, can I just pause here for a sec?

TURKLE: Uh-huh.

RAZ: What if someone is so lonely, and their loneliness can be resolved by having a robot or, you know, some device to talk to - I mean, shouldn't we let them have that?

TURKLE: Well, I think that - you know, look. I'm not the Grinch, you know. I'm not here - I mean, let me be realistic. I don't want to be in the position of the Grinch, denying the loneliest person on the planet an entity to chat with. But, you know, what are they chatting about? What is it to suggest chatting with an entity that has no idea what you're saying? So the question is, why would we want to do that to ourselves, to construct false relationships? Because when we construct robots, we are changing ourselves. We are changing what we are willing to consider a relationship.

RAZ: But this is happening, Sherry. I mean, this is - you have students, you have had students over your career who are now doing this. Who are working counter to everything that you are now talking about. And I'm wondering how we avoid this, this thing that you're worried about. How do you avoid it now?

TURKLE: I don't really see myself as the boy with his finger in the dike. My job is not to stop the research or say, you know, people who are doing this research, you know, are bad people or - I'm just saying, I want to hear a more articulated conversation about what are the human values, what are the real needs that we're serving.

RAZ: So Sherry, later in the show we're going to hear from some of your colleagues at MIT who, you know, make you seem like an outlier.

TURKLE: I know that when I have conversations with my colleagues, or listen to TED Talks that talk about this, they always end with: If we let robots do the job, we will become more human. That's how it always ends. We will become more human. We will become more human.

I'm not so sure. I think playing with our pets is something that kind of matters, and why do we want all of these robot pets around? Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot? I think that at the end of life, when she wants to reflect on her life, she deserves to have people around who understand what a life is and quite frankly, I think we need to hear the stories of her life, to learn from her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY TURKLE TED TALK)

TURKLE: Technology is making a bid to redefine human connection - how we care for each other, how we care for ourselves. But it's also giving us the opportunity to affirm our values and our direction. I'm optimistic. We have everything we need, to start. We have each other, and we have the greatest chance of success if we recognize our vulnerability; that we listen when technology says it will take something complicated, and promises something simpler.

But our fantasies of substitution have cost us. Now, we all need to focus on the many, many ways technology can lead us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities, our own politics, our own planet. They need us. Let's talk about how we can use digital technology - the technology of our dreams - to make this life the life we can love. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Sherry Turkle - she's at MIT. A million and a half people have watched her full TED Talk. You can, too, at TED.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: "My Robot, My Friend, My Replacement" we're talking about how our technology is actually changing us, emotionally and even physically. I'm Guy Raz. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.