The Medium is the Massage: on the Temptation to Replace People with Technology

Sherry Turkle is distraught. The more this MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology looks at the world around her, the more she sees an obsession with technology that undermines genuine social interaction and hinders meaningful relationships. She goes to technology conferences and finds that “what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks.” This is because, “online life provides environments where one can be a loner yet not alone, have the illusion of companionship without the demands of sustained, intimate friendship.” In other words, we find that we need something outside of ourselves, but at the same time we don’t want the messiness and difficulty inherent in traditional relationships. New technology helps us to circumvent this tension. Said one elderly Japanese woman of a robotic dog in her nursing home (as quoted by Turkle): “It is better than a real dog…It won’t do dangerous things, and it won’t betray you….Also, it won’t die suddenly and make you feel very sad.”

In one sense, Turkle’s critique goes too far. In another sense, it doesn’t go far enough. Most of Turkle’s critiques could also be applied to just about any other medium which stands in for traditional communication. The internet meme with a decades-old photo of a train full of passengers all reading newspapers instead of talking to each other underlines that point quite nicely. Once a medium acquires respectability (through nothing more than time and familiarity), we simply stop noticing how much it gets in the way of face-to-face interaction. The Disney film Beauty in the Beast, for example, features an 18th century female protagonist, Belle, who is thought strange by her neighbors for her obsession with a medium of communication, namely books, and the impact that this has on her ability to socialize with them (it really is a tale as old as time!). However, we are expected to sympathize with Belle, whose anti-social habit we now view as sacrosanct, and view the villagers as provincial and outmoded. Replace Belle’s books with online video games and the lesson would be a very different one—and at the very least the online video games have a more obvious social dimension. In sum, Turkle seems to be missing the point by picking on only the contemporary technologies.

At the same time, this is exactly why her critique doesn’t go far enough. Books connect you to people of a different time and place, giving you the ability to see through their eyes and enter into a kind of dialogue with them. Similarly, online video games and chat rooms provide opportunities for those who struggle to fit into their own communities to form others with satisfying friendships and regular affirmation of their interests and personalities. However, insofar that both can become a replacement for and not a facilitator of our interactions with others, they become something akin to an idol—an object of obsession which stops us from loving God and loving others. As John Calvin wrote, our minds are a “perpetual factory of idols.” We allow pornography to replace our spouses, the Bible to replace God, and chat rooms to replace friendships. Anything which stands in the way of our loving God and others is a threat, and our trouble is not necessarily that we love the wrong things, but that we can quite easily make good things into idols. As Turkle astutely puts it, “emotional life can move from ‘I have a feeling, I want to call a friend,’ to ‘I want to feel something, I need to make a call.’” The trite but accurate expression, “we are supposed to love people and use things” is relevant here, and we must always fight the temptation to get these reversed.

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