The “Crisis” of the Networked Self: Manufactured, Patronizing, and Misguided

April 26, 2012 at 16:44 (Misc, Philosophy)

It strikes me as perfectly indicative of everything I want to say in this post that Sherry Turkle’s latest Cassandra impression in the New York Times is titled “The Flight From Conversation,” yet comes accompanied by an illustration that looks, to me, like a bunch of people having conversations.

I suppose it is something of a meta-comment to note that lately, an issue is topical when it shows up in the NYT and The Atlantic, lights up my Twitter radar, and then gets critiqued in Slate and again in The Atlantic. But really, the reason I am moved to comment has more to do with the fact that few things make me crankier than Turkle’s particular style of fretting critique, especially mobilized for the purpose of bemoaning the maladies afflicting our contemporary existence. Crankiness and caffeine, admixed in a solution of thesis-procrastination, apparently react to produce lots of text and a precipitate of crystallized snark.

To lead off with, here’s some ad hominem that actually has a legitimate role in the argument. I want to suggest that the fact that Sherry Turkle seems not to know how to have a genuine conversation via SMS or Facebook is her problem, not society’s. Turkle speaks of being “alone together.” I would contend that the phenomenology is better captured by the notion that we can, if we so please, be together even when we find ourselves alone.

Though I admit it is not devoid of insight, I find something fishy, and potentially quite rank, in her thesis that “connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.” One of two things is true of this statement. Either Turkle is simply flatly ignorant of how often people connect in far more than “sips” on these platforms (unlikely, my intuition suggests) … or – this being the interpretation I find both likely and personally offensive – she deigns to classify all such interactions as sip-like, in which case she is condescendingly telling vast swaths of netizens that their personal experiences of genuine coming-to-know-one-another across a panoply of networked media are actually hollow and meaningless, those poor deluded dears.

All those fast friendships forged in the camaraderie-cultivating crucible of a World of Warcraft raiding guild or the inhibition-melting soil of a discussion forum for that one interest that nobody in your hometown happens to like? I am so glad we have Sherry Turkle, who, after all, really understands us (y’know?), to drop in and be all “false alarm, kiddoes! You don’t have any REAL FRIENDS. Silly internet people with your widespread false consciousness! You’re not interacting the proper way that humans are supposed to interact, which, obviously, has been heretofore static since the dawn of time.” Maybe you feel I am being uncharitable in reading her as making some normative claim as opposed to a purely descriptive one; pardon me for following my nose. I smell an ought in her tone. “It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect,” Turkle advises. To the extent that this is at all true, it reflects a contingent fact about how poorly many people use platforms like FB. Such a shallow observation fails to tell us much worth incorporating into a reasoned opinion.

For my next trick, allow me to bite the bullet on the case of the woman talking to a robot about the loss of her child. Let us suppose she really found that a genuinely therapeutic experience. Pray, imaginary hyperventilating interlocutor, enlighten me: where is the harm here? Who loses? And please, have the gumption not to slippery-slope me here. I want to know what is objectionable about this case. Because I just do not see it. I see a woman who was hurting, who then found the outlet she needed, in something that happened not to be another person. Not all that different than if she had found it in painting, or writing poetry, or, for goodness’ sake, cuddling a pet. At least she’s not eating or psychedelically drugging her feelings (oh hey that latter is not so bad sometimes whoops) … Or, for that matter, what about finding said outlet on a therapist’s couch? Maybe I’m naive, but it seems to me that while therapy certainly qualitatively differs from unburdening onerself to a robot, it also qualitatively differs from this archetypal deep face-to-face exchange that Turkle so insistently venerates. (Heck, the classic image of a therapy session isn’t even face-to-face!)

Now, I am perfectly willing to have a conversation, once we settle the moral valence of the case at hand, about what kind of a system this sort of solution creates, and how it may be difficult to stave off some pitfalls that we can agree are bad; but if we are being honest, those worries are not the emotional engine of this critique. And that, really, points to a problem I have with critique as an intellectual activity in general: it is a great thing when directed well, taking aim at concrete harms; but nothing about it makes it inherently accountable to any consequence worth actually caring about. So many critics spin their vague, unsubstantiated sense of “yuck” at a particular prospect into a product whose volume belies its density, their brilliance squandered on the creation of gauzy, airy fluff. It tastes sweet and looks pretty, but such cotton-candy critique never fails to leave me searching for actual sustenance.

What follows is, in a way, uncharacteristically conservative a point for me to make; normally, after all, I am inclined to think of people as shaped by their environments rather than as fundamentally responsible for how they function, but here it goes anyway. People who cannot bear to be alone for a moment? They have a problem, and that problem is theirs, and needs no scapegoat. Not everybody has this problem, either. I personally am a living affront to Turkle’s sensibilities, and yet, hey! I also require a steady diet of meditative solitude. Go figure!

When people are so absorbed in their techno-bubbles that they forget to be considerate of others around them, I am angry at them as people for failing to use their tech tools in a circumspect and respectful way, whereas Turkle gets angry at the tech tools. J’accuse – her way of thinking about it is just plain bad for two reasons: it is ahistorical and it is infantilizing. People have always found ways of escaping from themselves, from others, and from their responsibilities. Nothing is relevantly new here, which means that the newness of the stuff is irrelevant. Turkle writes that “Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.” Holy ahistorical hand-wringing, Batman! It’s as though nobody ever thought to finesse their self-presentation over the phone, or at a Halloween party, or in a handwritten letter, et cetera, et cetera, in the whole course of human history until the idea sprang fully formed from the Zuckerbrain less than a decade ago! Remember that one time when that one ancient Egyptian dude totally made himself out to be a totally savvy socialite on papyrus, but then he turned out to be a real loser? Yeah, me either.

Which brings me to the charge of disrespect: people have always been capable of waking up to the existence of their values and responsibilities, and to treat them as though they are not (without good evidence otherwise, and Turkle is not a data person) both patronizes and enables. It coddles away responsibility for people who flee their problems and act inconsiderately – and holy smokes, I sound like a Republican saying that, but sometimes it rings true! That 16-year-old kid who says he doesn’t know how to have a conversation? There is something wrong with him and that something is not technology. Most people in the 13-24 age group I know have developed perfectly functional conversational skills despite their social-media-inundated development, and I have not seen a shred of evidence indicating this is a bad anecdote. In the same way that a person’s having Asperger’s does not excuse instances in which that person acts like an asshole – because the former is not a causally sufficient condition for the latter – growing up in a networked world does not “excuse” (or usefully explain) stunted social development. To believe otherwise is to make a rather uncharitable attribution to many people who fall into the former category but not the latter.

If Turkle hopes to be a true partisan for conversation, she ought to start by admitting to herself that her model of conversation has been broken for at least a decade. (Just as it would be broken if she tried to take it back to 1912.) It has remained stuck in roughly the era of her own adolescence and young adulthood, unsurprisingly. I am all in favor of “sacred spaces”, as she calls them, but for different reasons. The reason to forbid texting at the dinner table has very little to do with texting qua newfangled gadget-function; the point is that the remote person(s) with whom you are conversing when doing so probably ought not be more important to you than your actual family, and in all likelihood, you – being an understandably shortsighted non-adult in this hypothetical – need to be taught that. On the other hand, if I find myself at dinner with people I genuinely find boring and awful … well, in much the same way that I would be surreptitiously hamming it up with a like-minded friend were I lucky enough to have one there in person, I am sure as heck gonna live-tweet the b’jeezus out of all the boring awfulness to friends who will be entertained and commiserate, and am going to get a whole a lot more out of that than I would out of being an ascetic Turkle anchorite. (Or does she mean for us to be cenobites? She vacillates.)

I keep on being told, by Turkle and by Stephen Marche in The Atlantic and by others still, that “we” suffer from “unprecedented alienation.” And I would press these folks: who do you mean “we,” kemo sabe? Funny thing about loneliness, I could have sworn it is a state about which an individual’s self-report has generally been considered a trustworthy indicator. Until this horde of “concerned” reactionaries arrived on the scene to disabuse me of that notion with their sanctimonious clucking, I guess. In the Atlantic piece, Marche hardly even tries to disguise the inadequacy of substituting third-person measures of loneliness for subjective ones; he helps himself to his own conclusion at one point by running together solitude with loneliness, and then, by sleight-of-hand, disowns this move without ceding what he wants its impact on the reader to be. Speaking of sleights of hand, what a cute little insinuation he makes-without-making-it about how Moira Burke’s research must have been tainted by her future employer! I guess our classy friend heard before the rest of us about that quantum physics experiment demonstrating how causality can reach back in time (it doesn’t really show that, but anyway).

Still, at least Marche is better about making the important concessions than Turkle is. He admirably notes that we, not our tools, are the authors of our own loneliness, and for that matter cites with (perhaps grudging) approval Cacioppo’s decidedly instrumental view of technology. And he pulls in critics who at least know whereof they speak – well, at least Jaron Lanier. We’ve already been over Turkle.

“What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity,” Marche writes. Really? We had no idea of this before? That inkling was not dawning on our collective consciousness when we started mostly living in cities (except hey look, suburbia is even lonelier …)? We are to believe that this is not merely the condition of modernity and of post-modernity, warmed over? The willful historical blindness here beggars belief. As does the double-talk: what a challenge it proved to find Marche’s nod to human agency very believable (“Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse”) when he ends his article with “Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.”

I will call it commendable, at least – a step further than Turkle bothers to go – that Marche tries to weigh in on this topic with some empirical ammunition. Except, oh wait, not really. Not that we should be surprised at how shaky, inconsistent evidence always seems just dandy when it centers the boogeyman du jour squarely in the crosshairs (shades of Fredric Wertham!) … no need to go on rehearsing Kilnenberg’s above-linked dismantling of Marche’s evidential weaponry – go ahead and enjoy the read, and note that he also still thinks we have the option to disconnect. Hey, hope springs eternal. Some of us believe in people.

While I am wrapping up, I want to offer up a big “strongly seconded” to everything that Zeynep Tufekci says on the topic. What better summary of my own thoughts than: “the people Turkle sees with their heads down on their devices while on a train somewhere are … connecting to people they deem important in their lives.” (Seriously, read her whole piece. It soars. I’ll wait here.) It feels nice, for once, to be trusted – to see that someone can look at this scary new thing some of us are doing and say, you know? I think they have it in them to wield these gizmos in ways that help them get more out of their lives. In a way, that stance redeploys of one of the central insights of feminist and post-colonial theory to a different (and admittedly far less marginalized) constituency, namely my own uber-networked generation: part of signaling that you value and respect a group of people consists in extending us a basic measure of trust when it comes to our ability to competently navigate our own lives, exercise our agency for our own good, and figure things out absent the meddling of a bunch of supposedly-more-enlightened parent-figures who fail to actually understand our experiences or perspective.

I know, I know: it feels scary, from the perspective of someone with a wealth of life experience and wisdom, to imagine that we might miss some yawningly dreadful nascent threat to our well-being and our societal structures, that it might fly under the radar due to this chorus of “the kids are all right.” But, like those who would sooner drive than fly because a 747 going down is the stuff of nightmares while a car accident is this unremarkable (yet vastly more probable) background risk to which we’re all inured, the school-marm types waxing Chicken-Little on this topic are fixating on a salient, nasty outcome with little regard for either the double standards they are embracing or for the disfiguring effects of such constant alarm. To which I can only say: chill. We got this.

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