This important book explores how we are becoming strangers to others and to ourselves because we no longer talk often – at least not face-to-face. Even the use of the telephone has changed these days. Telephones are now for texting, picture taking, information, seldom for conversation. As Sherry Turkle studies the relationship of people and technology, she analyzes how digital devices change the way we relate to others. Her research suggests constant connection to the internet deeply affects family, school, work and worship. It changes what we do but also who we are. Connecting virtually to others plus constant internet preoccupation reshapes the human personality. The uniquely human ability to receive and give love is stunted. We take on computer characteristics.
Knowledge of self and others comes from conversation, face-to-face interaction. In conversations we open our hearts to each other. We learn from body language, voice inflection, emotional responses, feelings, silences, awkward moments; all of which are missing from text messages. As Turkle wisely notes, we learn especially from conversations with people who disagree with us. It strengthens our own beliefs and attitudes, while nurturing understanding and tolerance. Face-to-face we experience others and ourselves completely, warts and all without pretense, without scrubbing the image. In contrast, online we present our best self as others do to us. Online we can choose to relate only to those who agree with us. Emotionally less demanding, messaging seems more rewarding. But relationships are flattened, in danger of becoming shallow and our humanity less humane.
According to Turkle, persons shaped by computers show less empathy. Their feelings are stunted, under-developed. School surveys show children’s ability for empathy is in decline. They express feelings with difficulty and fail to read how words can hurt others. Today, teens typically use a text message to break off romantic relationships, or to express condolences. At meals, at parties, searching their smart phones, they are not present to others. Many children prefer virtual friends and robots to real friends. Robots do not cause friction, they do not disagree, do not quarrel. In contrast, the real world is unpredictable, sometimes emotionally draining. Since the late 1990s virtual pets and social robots present themselves as having feelings and love. Can simulated love ever be love? Turkle writes: “The most important job of childhood and adolescence is to learn attachment to and trust in other people. That happens through human attention, presence and conversation.”
Increasingly there is a push to give companionship to the elderly through technology, but can a social robot or an advanced Siri ever be a person’s best friend? Turkle observes that we like the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship:
Caring machines challenge our most basic assumptions of what it means to commit to each other. Empathy apps claim they will tutor us back to being fully human . . . we have to ask if we become more human when we give our most human jobs away. We have to remember who we are – creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky, and face-to-face.
Are we destined to reduce the human person to a glorified robot? Turkle does have hope. She thinks humans are resilient and will resist the addiction of being connected 24/7. But because constant connectivity is a powerful addiction, resisting its pull is very, very difficult. She records the beginnings of resistance. For example, increasingly businesses discourage multi-tasking, forbid smart phones inside a meeting and stage opportunities for face-to-face conversations; classrooms are beginning to be cleared of personal devices; families schedule limits on screen-time, plan device-free dinners, evenings, even weekends; declare kitchens and dining rooms conversation-only spaces; device-free restaurants are beginning to pop-up; summer camps lacking connectivity are popular.
Are we raising a generation bereft of tender moments of shared pain and joy? Where is this technology taking us and at what cost? Do the things we learn in the virtual world help or hinder us to live better in the real world? If Turkle is even partly correct, Christians would do well to seek opportunities for real conversations that honour our identities as images bearers of God, created for deep connection.
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