Some books are worthy and earnest. Others sling “2.0”, “digital native” or “zombie” into a title to show that the author is down with the kids. Very rarely, a book is published that plays tug of war with our beliefs. The words pull and jolt. These tug-of-war books are exceptional. Sherry Turkle has written two of them.
Her Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) captured a buoyant combination of hippy happiness and technotopia. She wrote about citizens gaining new perspectives when entering digitised worlds. The book clothed readers in a virtual kaftan, opening a wardrobe of e-opportunities.
Then dot-com bubbles burst, hyper-techno obsolescence damaged the environment and new theories of screen culture interrupted Turkle’s celebration. These realignments did not undermine her contribution. She changed how scholars and citizens understood the internet.
Her re-examination of technological mediations was always going to be a publishing – and intellectual – event. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other grew out of 15 years of research. The length of intellectual gestation means she has overstressed minor moments in the history of technology, such as Tamagotchis, Furbies and Aibo the robot dog. These redundant examples are rationalised because later arguments are built on earlier chapters.
Put more bluntly, Turkle is obsessed by robots. Half of this book is on robots. The other half is framed by robots. She argues that “relationships with robots are ramping up. Relationships with people are ramping down.” Actually, no. I know some people devoted to robots. Fifty years ago, similar obsessives enjoyed woodturning. Turkle is worried about the emotional investment, time and attention lavished on robots. While interesting, much of this terrain was covered in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, The Measure of a Man. Lt Commander Data (an android) was put on trial to assess his sentience. Was “he” property or a puppet? Did “he” have the right to choose? Turkle inverts Data’s ethical predicament, exploring the consequences for “us” if “we” transform robots into “sort of alive”. She does not quite move to “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” territory, but it is close.
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