Psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle has spent more than twenty years studying the psycho-social impacts of robotics and evolving communication technologies. The concerns she expresses in her most recent work, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, are a departure from the (to my mind) uncritical enthusiasm with which she greeted on-line identity-play earlier in her career. In her work in the 1980′s she welcomed cyberspace as productive of more expansive, creative, and potentially more satisfying forms of selfhood. While she has not abandoned that position completely– and certainly has not embraced any form of anti-technological distopianism– she finds that high speed networks, social media applications, and more interactive robots have not deepened and strengthened people’s capacities for self-creation, but threatened the self’s integrity and ability (and desire) to bear the burdens of meaningful relationship.
Alone Together focuses on the ways in which advanced robotics and ubiquitous connectivity are changing both our understanding of “who” it is possible to have meaningful relationships with (robots, avatars, on-line personae which may be fundamentally distinct from the person’s material identity) and the constituents of what people will count as a meaningful relationship.
Turkle’s evaluation of the implications of virtual life have changed because the technologies have changed. In the 1980′s, computer networks were slow, interfaces mostly text-based and monochromatic, and the idea of a ”sociable robot” still confined to science fiction. No longer. Robots are now interacting with the elderly in nursing homes and ”learning” speech and emotional expressivity in artificial intelligence laboratories. People and their on-line personae are globally linked in real time, multimedia networks. Richer, more complex forms of human-machine interaction and computer-mediated human interaction are fundamentally transforming people’s expectations of what counts as a gratifying and valuable relationship. “We ask less of people,” she writes, ”and more of technology.”(Turkle, 2011, 231).
Why is it that we are asking more of technology and less of each other? The causes are complex, of course, but a fundamental issue is the intensification of time-pressure. Capitalism has constantly accelerated the pace of life, and capitalism since the emergence of networked computing has accelerated this dynamic beyond what anyone in the nineteenth century could have imagined. Working people must work more than one job to survive, or they must work longer hours, or do the same amount of work with fewer co-workers; professionals must produce more and be constantly “tethered” to the office as a condition of employment and advancement. Work-time is both longer and more intense, leaving less time and emotional energy for depth connection with family, friends, lovers, and other people in general. “Connectivity technologies once promised to give us more time. But as the cell phone and smartphone eroded the boundaries between work and leisure, all the time in the world was not enough. Even when we are not “at work”, we experience ourselves as “on call;” pressed, we want to edit out complexity and “cut to the chase.” (Turkle, 2011, 13).
This intense time pressure has allowed people to start imagining what thirty or forty years ago would have seemed unthinkable: that machines could unburden us of the emotional labour (Harriet Fraad) of caring for each other. Turkle’s interview subjects, pawing a Paro (a robotic baby seal designed by Japanese roboticists to “keep the elderly company”) cannot help but fantasize that it could free themselves from the responsibility of having to help meet the needs of an institutionalised parent. A student that Turkle meets muses unironically about replacing her difficult boyfriend with a programmable robotic partner. The problem here is not the violation of some taboo against machine-human communication. Rather, it is that the human beings know that the robot has no interior life, no consciousness, no self-consciousness, no feelings, no desires, no needs, and desire a ”relationship” with it because of this emptiness, this simulacrum of interaction, this programmability. They feel relieved of the difficult burdens of working through the opacity and contradictions of other people. One can “cut to the chase,” program in precisely the responses one thinks one needs, and rescue one’s self from the uncertainty and unpredictability of human partners and caregivers.
Initially, it is shocking to read the ease with which people seem willing to discard interiority as a condition of meaningful selfhood and social relationship. The robot’s lack of interior life, spontaneity, feelings, concerns, worries, anxieties– all that makes our emotional life so frought that we require others to help us through– appears to no longer be seen as barrier to the robot’s being a consociate. The robot can “perform” emotions, as Turkle nicely phrases it, and her subjects seem to accept that this performance is not only better than nothing, it might be better than the real thing.
But as one reads further and more closely, it becomes apparent that what is really speaking through these people is the growing anomie, loneliness, and meaninglessness of life in contemporary capitalist society. Turkle does not waste time in moralistic condemnation, but traces the causes of this sort of self-editing to the barriers that the pace of modern life erects against the satisfaction of deep psychic needs for both solitude and material connection. Human beings require moments of solitude– if we are never apart, we have nothing to share– and yet the demands upon us make solitude more and more impossible. Constant virtual inter-connection robs us of the ability to be productively alone with ourselves (to imagine, to let the mind wander, to pay attention, to build a self out of the found materials of everyday life). The incapacity to be alone leads to a thinner, less confident self in need of constant superficial affirmation from others. This self can bear neither the demands of solitude nor material sociality. This thin self is anxious around other people and is anxious alone: the only solution, it seems, is to remain connected on terms each self thinks she or he is dictating. This relationship without openness to the difference of others is being alone together: needing the virtual presence of other people but always on one’s own terms. “It is poignant that people’s thoughts turn to technology when they imagine ways to deal with stresses that they see as having been brought on by technology. They talk of filters and intelligent agents that will handle the messages they don’t want to see.”(Turkle, 2011, 202).
The networked self thus faces a peculiarly modern anxiety: “the anxiety of always.” (Turkle, 260).
The anxiety of always is overwhelming, and so the self tries to unburden itself: of irreplaceably human and irreplaceably valuable emotional labour (caring for children, the sick, the elderly); of the uncertainties of building mutually affirming, multidimensional relationships in real time and space, of the multiple roles material social life imposes upon it, of its real life-history, neuroses, and limitations. All of this expresses one truth clearly: people have lost control over their life-time, but desire to reclaim it back from the roles into whoch they have been forced. “Our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face to face with a person. But it can be accomplished with a robot, or … by slipping through the portals of a digital life.”(Turkle, 157) Over and over again Turkle’s subjects calibrate the value of an interaction with the degree of control they are able to assert within it. What they discover is that virtual life offers the appearance of control– over what the robot says in response to your actions, over your avatars and on-line identities, about those aspects of others to which you will pay attention– but that the rigid instrumentalism they bring to bear on their on-line interactions robs them of lasting value. They end up realizing that the value they seek through virtual connection cannot be realized without (eventual) material co-presence; that the goods of social life are inseparable from the material messiness of others’ needs and demands upon us, of our spontaneously developed not instrumentally programmed psyches, our ambivalences, insecurities, and desires.
The problem these people confront– loss of control over life-time– is important, perhaps the most fundamental social problem. For a being with a finite life-time, there is nothing more important than its capacity to dispose over its time. Human freedom is freedom of action, and freedom of action presupposes free time, time not already structured by externally imposed, coercive routines. The problem is thus real, but it is a social problem. The attempt to find a technological fix exacerbates rather than ameliorates it. Instead of creating social and political movements that address the socio-economic causes of time-pressure, people, feeling collectively powerless, retreat as individuals to virtual communities for respite. There, they discover an environment in which they seem to be in control, but forget that the meaning of “community” is “to give among each other.”(Turkle, 238). For embodied beings, giving amongst each other requires “physical proximity.”(Turkle, 239) That does not rule out new forms of virtual relationship, but, so long as we have bodies, it does mean that the virtual will always be a supplement to the material.
The dreamers of machine dreams are motivated by goals inimical to the constant pressure the economy imposes upon us to perform. They want to play, to explore who they are by pretending to be someone else, to find new ways to stay in touch, to cultivate multiple friendships not bound by place or shared history– but repeat the oppressive performance imperative even as they seek to release themselves from it. In their initial openness to programmable robot companions, in their work to craft the perfect on-line personae, in their terror of separation, they bear the scars of the capitalist value-system, in which everything is designed to sell, and quickly, in which nothing has value in itself but only in terms of that quantifiable reward it brings, in which there are no social problems but only technologies that have not yet been invented, in which there is no society but only abstract individuals trying to get what they want from each other with no cost to themselves.
Unmet needs persist in feeling– we cannot will ourselves to not eat, and we cannot will ourselves not to desire connection with the not-self. The human good is not self-contained, it always involves relatedness to the world and other people. But as soon as we go out of ourselves to find in the world and others what is not programmed into us, there is risk: of rejection, of failure, of disappointment. But if we could– as the machine dreamers hope– program everything in, it would be of no value, because expected. Life without the possibility of the unexpected is life without the future. But human freedom depends on the openness of the future, on not knowing what will happen, on not being able to program in others’ responses to us, or our ours to them. Life with others is made profoundly difficult by both forms of uncertainty– the only thing worse would be to find an algorithm to solve it.