Sherry Turkle thinks that the crucial characteristic of a life lived online is the desire for control over where we place our attention. As she argued in March of this year, those of us with connected devices bursting out of every pocket want nothing so much as to be where we are not; to pay attention only to the bits of experience, whether real or online, that most interest us.
“Across the generations,” she says, “I see that people can’t get enough of each other – if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect. Not too close, not too far, just right.”
When you ask young people what they like about email, Facebook and Twitter, as Turkle has done for years, they tend to say two things: firstly, they like the asychronicity of online communication, and, secondly, they like being able to control what they’re going to say. In other words, we’re all hiding from each other, even though we’re apparently more connected than ever before.
I think Sherry Turkle is right, though it’s a pity she stops short of identifying the causes of this behaviour, preferring merely to document its effects. What she gets exactly right, however, is that the technology we surround ourselves with isn’t a cure for the perceived psychological trauma of being alone. It has become one of the causes.
Facebook doesn’t really bring us any closer to other people. Instead, when we get a comment or a “Like”, we’re simply having our mood fixed for us. Facebook acts like a bong hit, or a shot of tequila, manipulating our brain chemistry to provide a temporary burst of dopamine and a warm glow of comfort at the expense of our long-term well-being.
It’s incredibly, almost terrifyingly good at it, employing a number of tricks to produce that temporary high. Take those Likes: not only does every Like yield a separate notification, with a concomitant flicker of elation, but, taken together, the Likes on a given post represent a time-shifted fantasy of friendship.
Eleven of my friends were not there at the same time, laughing together with me at the picture I posted of my new dog looking sweet and goofy. But the “11 people liked this” that appears under my image implies that they were. It’s a crafty sleight of hand that uses language to distort real-world chronology. We become concerned more by the number of people who expressed amusement than by any meaningful response.
One need not look far past Sartre and Kierkegaard to be reminded of an immutable human truth: that we are never more alone than when surrounded by people. Complex, imperfect, frustrating person-to-person interaction is what human beings really crave. And that’s precisely the sort of interaction Facebook is writing out of our online lives by concentrating on quantity over quality—on atomic snippets of communication between hundreds of people instead of deep, satisfying conversation.
The word “connection”, which has come to mean any interest or attention, however transitory or slight, shown in either direction from one person to another, ought to give us a clue about what social networks are doing to the bonds between people. Unfortunately, people are a lot more complicated than TVs and power sockets, and a mere “connection” between them is scarcely sufficient to satisfy our need for rich relationships.
All that said, we shouldn’t get carried away with the idea that more quality is all that’s needed to provide a healthy experience of the world. Because what we also need is solitude: not the feverish, fidgety anxiety prompted by a lack of 3G connection, but the calm resignation of quiet reflection. Time for that sort of reflection is being hammered out by social networks providing ever more frequent but granular hits of empty, digitised contact.
One of the most frustrating things about human psychology is that we experience desires every day that are not in our best interests. Sometimes those desires even conflict with one another. Facebook encourages the ephemeral, destructive ego with its insatiable demand for more likes, more friends and more followers, while engineering against those parts of us crying out for more sophisticated mutual understanding with another human being.
To put it another way, the richness and complexity of human relationships is streamlined into manipulable communication by the internet: reduced to a series of prepared interactions within which we can present ourselves as something different from that which we are. Something prettier. Something smarter. Something we can control.
But by sidestepping the trauma of revealing ourselves to the world as we really are, we are destroying much of what makes interpersonal communication so scary, yes, but also, more importantly, so profoundly rewarding. As Sherry Turkle points out in her TED talk, it’s only by really knowing others that we can have any hope of coming to know ourselves, and it’s the hard road to honest self-reflection that defines adolescence more than any other journey upon which young people, especially, embark.
There’s one other thing that this wave of technology does that I find particularly chilling. It lets us believe we need never be alone—that wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, there will always be someone we can connect with. We need never sit in quiet reflection; we need never look ourselves in the mirror and consider who we are, what we have done and where we want to go; we need never learn to enjoy the stillness and peace that comes with calm reflection.
Being alone is not a failure on your behalf; it doesn’t mean that not enough people love you, that you can’t fill your time. It’s an essential function of being human. But it’s a function we’re losing: studies are demonstrating that we are getting together in the real world less often these days, and that, when we do, our interactions are much less meaningful.
Meanwhile, software developers and hardware designers are releasing technologies with shocking, but shockingly not unrealistic, hubris: the aspiration that some day our virtual assistants and the devices in our home might become our confidants; the idea that technology can successfully replace other people. Look around, and you might realise that it’s already happening.
Social software and the consumer electronics devices we all devour so hungrily aren’t making us less lonely. They’re doing the opposite, encouraging us to locate our self-esteem in our ability to marshal frivolous responses from people on the internet, driving us toward communication for the sake of communication: texts in search of feeling and status updates in search of meaning.
“You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude,” says Turkle. Or, to put it another way: “If we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.”