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Shorter version-Book Review: Dr.Turkle's 'Alone Together'
Eitan D. Schwarz MD -- ZillyDilly for iPad Eitan D. Schwarz MD -- ZillyDilly for iPad
Monday, January 24, 2011

MIT's Dr. Sherry Turkle's ALONE TOGETHER (Basic Books, 2010) is must reading for anyone who has a cell phone; and a must MUST if you also have a child.

This talented MIT professor again provides superbly stimulating food for thought about the social / psychological dimensions of where our chaotic technology consumption may be taking us. My own clinical research and preparing my book (Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families, MyDigitalFamily.org) led me to discover Dr. Turkle, and I found her to be one of the most important and sensible scholars in the human / technology space. I found the book excellent, at times dense, and always a page turner.

We all should now be concerned about being in a 'robot moment.' Cybercrime, sexting, gaming, cyberbullying, multitasking, endless power struggles with our teens, and other sensational happenings that are capturing our attention are but tips of an iceberg.

Uncannily, even super-rational MIT scholars, despite their traditional impatience with how others anthropomorphize and project feelings onto their machines, now themselves develop feelings about robots, as if they were in a relationship with a living creature. This is BIG: Just because we have been anticipating them for centuries (at least since the 270 A.D. Golem), let us not be too casual now that they are actually here.

Down closer to earth, in our everyday lives, we too have become insidiously tethered and 'addicted'. Dr. Turkle suggests that, like the youngsters and oldsters she has studied, we are all vulnerable to becoming attached to robots, in our present case to the many disembodied robots that run our interactive devices. Dr. Turkle also reminds us that ever-more fully embodied robots, are already on their way.

We are now discovering that, given free rein, even as we intend them to improve our connections with one another, and to many extents they do, using these tools often actually fragments communication and can be harmful to us. It is also often easier to anonymously mistreat each other and ourselves. Our beloved devices filter too much out, and their use is dumbing down our kids and weakening our family lives. In addition, we now seem so attached to the devices themselves that we are scaring ourselves by just how out of control we can be.

We are still attached to people, but are increasingly interacting via the mediation of disembodied robots. Sadly, we end up treating each other shabbily as these devices also lead us to willingly chop up and squeeze the richness of our nuanced and felt human connections with each other into small, thin, narrow-bandwidth data trickles. Then we feel desperately compelled to keep this thin channel open. No, wonder -- it's hard to feel a good hug through a straw.

So what now?

Dr. Turkle's are necessary brilliant first steps, but the progress of science is careful when it comes to creating certainty. Adopting major new technologies (bronze tools, printing press, cotton gin, automobile, TV, atomic fusion, etc.) does inevitably change each new user, families, society, and the very course of history. Maybe what is new today is that the rapidity of change is itself so stressful. Now we even have a front row seat in real time. So maybe we can now hope to influence the course of this IT revolution directly, when it is still young.

People have always been social creatures who have needed each other. Humans have always been plugged in -- connected to one another through our senses and minds and bodies -- with what resemble broadband 'social synapses', hard-wired into us from birth. Making possible our survival as a species, these deep channels carry a wealth of highly choreographed uniquely human information among us.

Children always have and always will need good family relationships, values, education, and parents' full love and presence to develop into human creatures with healthy brains and minds. Children are programmed to form broad-band social synapses, primarily with parents, that feed them the rich data that organizes and shapes their brains and fullest humanness. We do not know how their development is ultimately affected by increasing interactions with robots or through narrow-bandwidth devices.

IMHO, it is HOW we use technology that counts. So let's start building on Dr. Turkle's and other scientists' findings and manage our technology consumption more thoughtfully, especially when it comes to children. The time has come for us to stop merely reacting with fear and mistrust of technology. We need comprehensive, sensible, practical approaches based on a sound vision of where to go from here. Such a framework needs to be credible, practical, pro-social, developmentally-oriented and family-centered. Let us take charge and make sure we, not the media or the devices, give ultimate form to our social synapses, especially when it comes to our kids.

Parents: change your mindset. Sometimes parents need to paddle the family canoe against the stream of popular culture, which, after all, often seeks the lowest common denominator. After over a decade of Wild-West digital social experimentation and youth media consumption chaos, it is now time for parents to become empowered and educated and use new tools to manage the digital lives of children.

I suggest beginning in early life to make the correct use of technology part of family life, not the other way around, if you want your babies to use it correctly when they become teens. Treat devices as appliances, like blenders. Harvest the best interactive digital resources and present them to 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. Plan media consumption as you do meals and hygiene.

Decide that no interactive digital device, whether embodied or disembodied, belongs in the home where you are raising budding humans unless it enhances family life and child development. Carve out tech-free times and places: keep the robots out of reach and turned off regularly in your home, borrowing from the traditional practice of reserving the Sabbath for restorative spirituality and reflection and affirmation of our anchors in faith, values, family, and community.

And please, please, do not rush yet to put embodied robots into kids' cribs or playpens.

- Dr. Eitan Schwarz has been privileged to know families and kids intimately through long portions of their lifecycle journeys, including all the peak experiences and deep valleys, during his nearly 40 years of child and adult psychiatry practice. In Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families and www.mydigitalfamily.org, Dr. S empowers, educates, and gives the right tools to parents wanting to raise kids with healthy minds and brains in today's digital world.

Lynda O'Connor
(847) 615-5462
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