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What ‘human’ looks like in a digital world

Sherry Turkle’s book Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, is a fairly good prediction (the book written ten years ago) at what the future holds if humans refrain from asking important questions about what it means to be human and why human companionship matters. 


The overriding question that we all should be asking is, What is special about being a person?


Turkle’s book focuses mostly on our vulnerabilities and intimacy with objects. She highlights studies that show how we change as technology provides us with substitutes for connecting with other humans face-to-face. 


She shares the reactions and feelings among the elderly and children, who form relationships with social robots such as AIBO, My Real Baby, Tamagotchis, Furbies, and Paro (a baby seal robot, popular with the elderly in Japan). 


Turkle suspects the positive of having social robots for the elderly, is that they are less lonely with a cute robot that “cares” about them, and perhaps they feel “loved” by the robot. Children on the other hand, at the time of her study, still prefer good human babysitters to robots.


Turkle reminds us that many roboticists are enthusiastic about having robots tend to our children and aging parents, but the time is now to begin a conversation about the psychological, ethical, and socially acceptable responsibilities in the future world that we say we want. 


Turkle plays with the idea that for children who feel unimportant, whose parents are too busy to offer attention and care, social machines will become substitutes for the people missing in their lives. This prediction has come true for many kids, at home alone, who are consumed with online gaming.


A particularly memorable part of the book is in the Epilogue where Turkle shares her own feelings for connecting with her college-aged daughter. Turkle, remembering the handwritten letters she and her mother exchanged, asks her daughter if she would write a letter and send it to her.


Her daughter responds that she might write, if she could “find a subject” to write about. Turkle gives her daughter some ideas by sharing subjects from the letters she wrote to her mother; and her daughter replied, “So send me a letter.” Turkle says, “And so I did.” 


Hence, it’s up to parents, especially digital parents, to show our kids today what ‘human’ looks like in a digital world.


Today’s teenagers grew up networked, sometimes receiving a first cell phone as early as eight. Their stories offer a clear view of how technology reshapes identity because identity is at the center of adolescent life. 
… We used to equate growing up with the ability to function independently. These days, always-on connection leads us to reconsider the virtues of a more collaborative self.  All questions about autonomy look different if, on a daily basis, we are together even when we are alone” (Turkle, p. 169).

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