Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books)
is a must read for anyone who has a cell phone; and especially a must must read if you also have a child. From what author Dr. Shirly Turkle describes so skillfully about her findings, we should now be at least curious, if not concerned at being in a 'robot moment.'
Scientists at MIT have created 'social robots' that can fool our own human brains into recognizing and feeling that the machines are living creatures, even while we know they are not fully alive. Uncannily, even these super-rational scientists, despite their impatience with how other people anthropomorphize and project onto their machines, now themselves develop feelings about robots as if they were in a relationship with a live creature.
Currently, our interactive online computer and smartphone bring many disembodied robots with them as they also chop up our relationships with each other into sound bytes. Dr. Turkle's point is that, like the youngsters and oldsters she has studied, we too are all vulnerable to the many disembodied robots in our interactive online computers and smartphones. And furthermore, their embodied brothers, the humanoids, are on their way.
I have not had the honor of meeting Dr. Turkle personally, but, as I was researching my own book, I found her to be one of the most important and sensible scholars in the human / technology space. Dr. Turkle, a distinguished full professor at MIT, has been skillfully watching this fascinating development unfold for well over a decade. As a fully human woman, she brings the discerning eye of a scientist, the lenses of a brilliant disciplined mind, the heart of a down-to-earth, decent, caring mother, and the compassion of a humane healer. Dr. Turkle is a first rate thinker, veteran researcher, and keen observer of the evolving human-machine interface that is so much part of our lives. Her work continues to illuminate the darker recesses of the space formed at the intersection of interactive technology, neuroscience, morality, and human development. The relevance of her work extends to all human interactions with interactive digital media.
Now, as a captivating writer, she again provides superbly stimulating food for thought about the social / psychological dimensions of where our chaotic technology consumption may be taking us. Dr. Turkle shares her lifetime's worth of observations, discoveries, and theories with us.
Clearly, Dr. Turkle is reporting about a malignant process that has emerged quietly and is sneaking up on us.
Or is it?
We will react strongly to Dr. Turkle's findings, as well we should because technology is here to stay with profound evocative psychological and philosophical challenges. But the movement of this science is careful when it comes to creating certainty, so it moves through theories to observational studies to replication, to debate, through through more research...and finally, to accepted explanation. Dr. Turkles are brilliant first steps. We need to know more, and are quite far from credible explanations.
In the meantime, what to do?
In the meantime, let us please go back to basics:
People are social creatures who need each other and are way ahead of other natural creatures in the complexities and nuance of our attachments and self-awareness. Just as movement is the activity of muscles and bones, so the mind is what the brain does - think and feel. We need other people and we have elaborate brain networks to connect with each other socially, across the social synapse. Our need for broadband human connections (across all the senses together -- face to face, skin to skin, ear to ear...) have not changed.
As they always have and always will, kids need family relationships, values, education, and parents' full presence to develop into healthy human creatures. Children need to form their social synapse, primarily with parents, to bring them the rich data about being fully human that organizes and shapes their brains and humanness.
And so, please, let us can manage technology accordingly.
IMHO, parents can become empowered and educated and use new tools we are developing to manage the digital lives of children, using the framework that includes what we already know. No interactive digital device belongs in a human home unless it enhances human family life and child development. Think about your family's technology devices as appliances and plan consumption as you do meals and hygiene. Harvest the best interactive digital resources and present them to your kids as their personalized balanced Media Plan containing age-appropriate Growth Opportunities for Family Relationships, Values Education, Education Enrichment, Socialization, and Entertainment and your full presence. So, unless we find out more, please, do not rush to put robots into kids' cribs or playpens.
Also, in the meantime, let us support the scientists discovering new knowledge in this field. We are at the threshold of encountering great new tools, so let us learn about how they affect us and utilize them to enhance the best about us, especially in our homes where we raise our kids.
-Dr. Eitan Schwarz is author of "Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families' (mydigitalfamily.org)