The Age of Entanglement, British LibraryI had the good fortune to imbibe a double-dose of Sherry Turkle this week; Kate and I saw her present at the LSE on Thursday evening, then crept to the British Library on Friday to see her in a panel discussion with John Naughton, Aleks Krotoski and Nick Tyler.

As usual, I was late to the party - never having heard of Sherry until Roman Verostko quoted her in a chat about algorithmic art earlier this year: "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with". That quote led me, via a few other conversations, to the copy of Evocative Objects which sits, sadly unread, on my bedside table; and to her recent book Alone Together - which she billed on Friday as a Bowling Alone for digital natives.

I took some reasonable notes on the Thursday evening; unfortunately everything I was carrying with me ran out of power towards the end of Friday, forcing me to rely on my memory to deliver impressions of the event. Some scattered scribblings:

  • Back at MIT, Sherry and many others went on a 3 day retreat to consider what home computers would mean. Aside from the gaming possibilities (which everyone agreed were clear), few applications were proposed. Calendaring and address books were brought up and rejected as stupid; no-one thought that anyone other than academics would use them for writing; tax preparation was floated as another possible application: "People stayed for 2 days and 5 meals, but there weren't many ideas".
  • Once they're networked, computers keep us busy: "We are their killer app;
  • Whilst her book Life on the Screen was optimistic, seeing online as a useful playground for identity, she failed to see that we would want to live simultaneously on and offline, and want to "bail out of reality" to visit virtual places. Aleks picked up on this concern about bailing out of reality; during the panel discussion when Sherry brought it up in the context of 15-year olds avoiding awkward encounters with the opposite sex, Aleks pointed out that they were having analogous experiences of awkwardness online and that they weren't therefore missing out on the experience completely;
  • "Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our vulnerabilities", "social robots deceive us into loving them: it turns out we are cheap dates", "connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy", and "we can't get enough of each other if we can keep each other at a distance we control";
  • It's not just about the young: 30-50somethings exhibit the same behaviour of avoiding perceived risks of real-time contact in favour of asynchronous communication like SMS or email;
  • Sherry finds the addiction metaphor applied to technology unhelpful: we can't lose technology in the way you might cure an addiction by avoiding a drug. Instead she advocated a dieting metaphor, and later referenced some of the debates we are having (societally) about fast food as a useful example of the kind of debate we should have around online privacy. "Just because we grew up with the Internet, we assume the Internet has grown up", she says, optimistic about our ability to have such a debate at what is still an early stage of online communications,;
  • She was emphatic about the need for online privacy and deplored the attitudes of some technologists towards its unimportance: "Everyone should have something to hide";
  • When applied to computer technology, transparency used to mean "having a full understanding of how the system works"; where computer literacy once meant knowing the engine, now it means understanding applications and explicitly avoiding the internals, "and that's a travesty";

One refrain from Sherry which I had trouble finding evidence for was the notion that solitude is, in and of itself, energising and nourishing. It seemed to be a belief she held strongly, but unlike much of her other (plainly well-researched) material she didn't provide much backing for this point. Whilst instinctively I'm inclined to agree with her, I'd like to see some evidence for the psychological value of solitude; or is it just something which a generation pre-Internet naturally acclimatised to, that digital natives have never needed?

During the panel discussion, I think it was Sherry who brought up the example of people texting one another at funerals (as a demonstration of the sinister reach of technology into inappropriate places). An interesting little back-chat on Twitter kicked off, with one poster pointing out that 30 years ago the idea of playing pop music at funerals would have been anathema, where now it's reasonable (to some, at least). "Is this not standard generational moral panic?", someone in the audience asked... and whilst I'd left the talk on Thursday generally agreeing with Sherry, I left Friday less sure. How can we possibly be objective about technology, or is it not, as someone else in the audience pointed out, "a failure of perspective to consider humans and technology as separate"?