Faculty Forum Online: Alone Together with Sherry Turkle, Wednesday, May 2

by Jay London on April 27, 2012 · 3 comments

in Events, Learning

Update: Listen to the audio of this presentation.

Is the compulsive attention that people pay to their mobile devices distorting personal relationships and social norms? Professor Sherry Turkle believes that the time is ripe for widespread rethinking of the way we communicate through technology.

Turkle, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, is an expert on mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics, and writes on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers.

Turkle will offer her thoughts on the growth of the digital world, the changes it has brought to contemporary lives, and take questions from the worldwide MIT community via video chat on Wednesday, May 2, 2012, from Noon to 12:30 p.m. ET.

Register for this free event—Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other—to receive the link for live viewing. After the event, come back here and continue the conversation in the comments.

About Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle is an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Profiles of Turkle have appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired. Ms. Magazine named her a “1984 Woman of the Year” and she was named one of the “Forty Under Forty Changing the Nation” by Esquire. A featured media commentator on the social and psychological effects of technology for CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, the BBC, and NPR, Turkle has appeared on Nightline, Frontline, 20/20, and The Colbert Report.

2012 TED Talk: Connected, but alone?
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7Xr3AsBEK4&w=500&h=254]

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012)
Simulation and Its Discontents (2009)
The Inner History of Devices (2008)
Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008)
Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007)
Life on the Screen:  Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995)
Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984)
Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (1978)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth Goldman May 2, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Great topic and discussion. The question and response around workplace inefficiency really struck home. I can’t count the number of times I had to step into an email thread and tell the folks to either get on the phone or get in a room and resolve the issue in real time. Email makes it too easy to engage in a fire and forget mode so the task is cleared from your queue producing the illusion of productivity but all you’ve really done is delay the resolution and make more work for everyone else.

Regarding reclaiming conversation, how can we effectively leverage technology to facilitate this? Many of us are part of a global workforce with distributed teams, we enjoy the benefits of telecommuting, so is there a way we can use technology to virtually wander the halls? Perhaps we could borrow something from online gaming and create virtual offices to recapture the feeling of being physically present?


Tim Chambers May 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

@Seth, re. fire & forget. Ditto!

Re. wandering virtual halls. I think energy is better spent on targeted investments of time and money to “recharge” virtual teams with periodic physical meetings. In my experience, a face to face meeting once every year or two is adequate for most situations regarding virtual work teams. I’ve heard that Canonical is a very virtual company with a minimal investment in brick & mortar offices. They bring people together multiple times a year at airport hotels. I think that’s a model with a reasonable balance. And please let us not get distracted by gimmicks such as Second Life. I thought Alan Kay’s work on Croquet was more intriguing.

It’s good for Prof. Turkle to emphasize that it is still very early in the game. I haven’t yet seen any virtual tools I would call “second generation.” Having said that, I think MIT and Harvard will learn a lot about these issues by focusing on the education space with EdX. Business is the wrong place to do this research. We should learn more by building a virtual academic community. Then those who have had positive experiences as students in the near future with EdX will be equipped to transform practices later in the business world.


Tim Chambers May 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm

I attended this event. Then I listened to the TED Talk. Re. always-on technology. We’ve suspended manners. My wife & I were firm with our sons. No texting at the family dinner table.

Re. “I share therefore I am.” This looks to me like the exception, not the rule. Most people online are lurkers. Only a minority create content. And I would put money on the publicly-available data proving me right. Just one example: my aunt only used Facebook to play FarmVille. I had to unfriend her because Facebook doesn’t adequately block such content.

Re. “everybody is performing.” That’s always been true! Professionals (and don’t most MIT alums fit in this category?) are always on stage. So #SoMe (social media) simply gives us one more way to perform. I don’t mind that my college-age sons don’t like to use the phone. We communicate just fine via txt. And we do talk on the phone sometimes. It’s not either/or. It’s both-and.

Re. 700 emails a day – yes, this is unsustainable. We need filters. This was even a problem a decade ago when mostly engineers who invented Internet technologies were experiencing it. More than once I wrote to someone and received an auto-reply that set expectations about the individual’s limited bandwidth to reply. And celebrities were handling postal fan mail long before email. So I’m not convinced this is a serious problem. As Shirky said, we need better filters. A combination of social norms and technology will respond to the new need. One might argue that #SoMe is a reaction to email overload. For some uses, #SoMe is more efficient than email.

Re. Google+. It’s not concentric circles! It’s more flexible than that. The designers permit us to have overlapping circles. Facebook is trying a variation of this fine-tuned control, too. Whether enough people want that level of sophisticated control remains to be seen. I find it to be of limited value. I use Twitter my blog for public expression – the former for microblogging throughout the day (I like the challenge of 140 characters), and the latter for longer, more thoughtful comments. I use G+ mostly for public posts, and that’s its blessing and its curse. I don’t know how it fits in between blogging and Facebook.

Re. whether people demand services with greater privacy. That’s not the problem! Many sites claim to protect our privacy better than Facebook or Google. They don’t benefit from the network effect. Instead, I would argue that we are still trying to figure out how to use #SoMe to faciliate conversations, and I look forward to hearing more about Dr. Turkle’s research into “reclaiming conversation.”

Now some meta-comments about this so-called forum. The “chat” feature is misleading. We couldn’t chat. We didn’t know who else was in the audience. Not very social, given the topic. It seemed to be a way for the audience to submit comments and questions. This didn’t feel like a forum at all. It felt like an infomercial for the professor’s research. But that’s ok. It was fascinating. 30 minutes wasn’t enough! I worked with the MIT Enterprise Forum in the 80’s – first as an undergrad in the alumni office and then as one of the founders of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Colorado. Now *that’s a forum!* I also experienced technical problems twice. I typed in a different window and then tried to paste and submit. The first time, chat, video & Firefox froze for a whole minute. (Audio was fine, thankfully.) Finally, my text was submitted. The second time, only the chat application froze until the end of the event, and my comments were never submitted.


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