If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.
To sit quiet and think, is the hardest thing a person can do, for when he does, all the Demons of the universe, show up and try to keep him from the truth. But these Demons must be faced, then slayed, in order to live a life worth living.
In a show called Do We Need Humans?, the TED Radio Hour features an interview with Sherry Turkle, who’s talk at TED lays out the dangers of being constantly plugged-in to computers and communicating with mobile devices. Both the interview (which I listened to on my phone) and her TED Talk (which I watched on my computer) are worth checking out. Pasted and transcribed below are excerpts from the interview and talk.
Guy Raz: So, Sherry, later in the show we’re going to hear from some of your colleagues at MIT who, you know, make you seem like, like an outlier.
Sherry Turkle: I know that when I have conversations with my collegues or listen to TED Talks that talk about this, they always end with: “If we let robots do the job, we will become more human.” That’s how it always ends: “We will become more human, we will become more human.” I’m not so sure… I think playing with our pets is something that kind of matters and why do want all these robots pets around? Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot? I think that at the end of life, when she wants to reflect on her life, she deserves to have people around who understand what a life is, and quite frankly, I think we need to hear the stories of her life to learn from her.
Over the past 15 years, I've studied technologies of mobile communication and I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people, young and old, about their plugged in lives. And what I've found is that our little devices, those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they've quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things.
So just to take some quick examples: People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during classes, during presentations, actually during all meetings. People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you're texting. (Laughter) People explain to me that it's hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents' full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention. This is a recent shot of my daughter and her friends being together while not being together. And we even text at funerals. I study this. We remove ourselves from our grief or from our revelry and we go into our phones.
Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble -- trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection. We're getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you. And some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other.
And I believe it's because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.
These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn't solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It's shaping a new way of being.
The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we're having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it's: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of "I share therefore I am" is that, if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. We almost don't feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.
How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely. And if we don't teach our children to be alone, they're only going to know how to be lonely.