Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

We expect more from technology and less from each other

By Sherry Turkle, Special to CNN
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Mon May 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sherry Turkle, once an enthusiast for digital technology, expresses some doubts
  • She says people are so focused on devices, networks, that other things get ignored
  • Turkle: In our rush to connect online, are we leaving behind real human interaction?
  • We want technology to step in as we invite people to step back, she says

Editor's note: Sherry Turkle is the author, most recently, of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other." She is a psychologist and a professor at MIT. She spoke at TED in March 2012. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- In November 2011, The Boston Globe had a panel on "cyberetiquette." We met in a theater at Boston Globe headquarters. On the stage was a moderator, a Globe reporter, and two of the Globe's regular "advice and manners" columnists. And then there was me, there, I suppose to represent the cyberworld and where it might take us.

As I remember it, we responded to questions from the moderator and from the floor with general agreement on most matters: No texting at family dinner. No texting at restaurants. Don't bring your laptop to your children's sporting events, no matter how tempting. (Your daughter looks up from her star turn at lacrosse, and you are deep into an e-mail to your supervisor. The game was boring until then, sure. But e-mail can get so engrossing that you've got to be careful; you're playing with fire!)

Then came this question from the floor: A woman said that as a working mother she had very little time to talk to her friends, to e-mail, to text, to keep up.

"Actually," she confessed, "the only time I have is at night, after I'm off work and before I go home, when I go family shopping at Trader Joe's [a supermarket]. But the guy at the checkout line, he wants to talk. I just want to be on my phone, into my texts and Facebook. Do I have the right to just ignore him?"

Watch Sherry Turkle's TED Talk

TED: Sherry Turkle

The two manners experts went first. Each said a version of the same thing: The man who did the checkout had a job to do. She had a right to her privacy as he provided his service. I listened uncomfortably. I thought of growing up and all the years I went shopping with my grandmother, all the relationships she had with the tradespeople at every store: the baker, the fishmonger, the fruit man, the grocery man, for this is how we called them.

TED.com: Make data more human

If they hadn't spoken to us, we would have been upset. If we hadn't spoken to them, I always assumed they would have been upset as well. I was not older than my fellow panelists. And I've never considered myself a nostalgic person. But I found myself disagreeing with them.

I answered the question from the floor in a very different spirit. I said that we all know that the job that the man at the checkout counter was doing can now be done by a machine. But until he is replaced by a machine, I think he should be treated as a person, with all the rights of a person. And that includes a bit of human exchange, since that is clearly what makes his job tolerable for him, makes him feel that in his job, this job that could be done by a machine, he is still a human being.

TED.com: We are all cyborgs now

I interview young people who tell me they hope that in the future, Siri will be even more like a best friend to them.
Sherry Turkle

My fellow panelists were not pushovers. Nor was the audience. This was not what they wanted to hear. But in this moment, as in so many others like it, when I took stock of their unhappy reaction to what I said, I felt myself at the cold, hard center of a perfect storm: We expect more from technology and less from each other. What once would have seemed like "good service" is now an inconvenience. That's the "less from each other" part of the equation.

We also want technology to step in as we invite people to step back. It used to be that we imagined that our mobile phones would be for us to talk to each other. Now, our mobile phones are there to talk to us.

New commercials for Siri, the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone, have it serving as a best friend and confidante to a man who is preparing for a romantic dinner date at home and to an ingénue who takes a rainy day off from work to dance around her apartment in bare feet. I interview young people who tell me they hope that in the future, Siri will be even more like a best friend to them.

TED.com: How technology evolves

We are at a moment of temptation, ready to turn to machines for companionship even as we seem pained or inconvenienced to engage with each other in settings as simple as a grocery store. We want to instrumentalize daily life with real people and accept fantasies of "intimate" conversations with robotic personal assistants who have no real understanding of what we are saying to them in terms of what things mean to us.

We seem lonely but afraid of intimacy. Siri, the social network, digital assistants, all of these give the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. The path we are on seems fraught with paradox and about the most important human matters.

Yet smitten with technology, we are like young lovers who are afraid that too much talking will spoil the romance. We don't much want to talk about these problems. But it's time to talk.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sherry Turkle.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT