Review of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each OtherAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does it mean when we live in a world where robots are beginning to care for the elderly or children? What does it mean when children look at a Galapagos tortoise in a zoo and say that a robot would be “alive enough” to do what it is doing. How do we engage with the world around us when we have the potential for 24/7 network access? What does the blending of the physical and virtual worlds mean for our psyches and identities?

Thirty years of research on how computers and technology affect how we think and think about ourselves is compellingly covered in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Our Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle balances down-to-earth examples of her daughter’s use of technology with a wide body of psychological research on adults and children’s interactions with computers and technological gadgets. Her’s is a measured and helpful voice within the group of writers exploring cultural change due to technology; neither blindly condemning it, nor uncritically trumpeting the wonders of new applications.

Centered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she is steeped in cutting edge technologies and innovation. She applies her knowledge as a psychoanalytically-trained psychologist to ask reflective questions about how the computer is changing us. She says that this book is a culmination of two previous books on the effect of computers on the mind. Second Self was published in the 1984 and centered on how one on one interaction with a computer re-shaped our thinking. Later, her 1995 book Life on the Screen, explored the emerging Internet and how the ability to connect through computers changes us. This book is a combination of these issues with the addition of the possibilities and pressures of mobile and personal devices.

Some stories she shares are lightly amusing like some of the students she interviewed about Facebook shared with her their exhaustion with the demand on their time to maintain their social “face” saying, “How long do I have to keep this up?”. Others are more troubling and really challenge how we think about relationships with our technology including humans who prefer the company of robots or their smart phones over members of their own family.

Whether you are curious about the social and psychological effect of Facebook and the Internet or are curious about more advanced robotic technology and artificial intelligence this book will challenge you to think about how technology impacts you, your family, and the world around you in a new and deeper way.

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What does Marshall McLuhan have to do with libraries? His Medium and his Message

The following two statements from library colleagues motivated me to understand more deeply how the Internet and Web are influencing libraries and librarians:

Web pages are still being used as if they are pieces of paper in the same way that TV programs were created as if they were radio programs that people can see. (2005)

The Medium is the message, right? (2012)

Gavin Brown, Web Manager at Enoch Pratt Free Library in 2005 and Tim Senapatiratne, Reference Librarian at Bethel Seminary Library in 2012 respectively, led me to seek out the meaning of the statement the “Medium is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan. The first statement brought the significant societal shift driven by the Internet and the World Wide Web to my attention particularly as it applied to libraries use of the Web. However, it was not until after graduate school, several years as a practicing librarian, and leading our library’s web redesign that the second statement drove me to seek out the true meaning of that famous phrase.

Because I am so deeply involved in transforming analog materials into digital form through digital collections and library services through the Web, I feel the responsibility to understand the impact that these activities, and the medium that they are delivered through, have on people.

In 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, introduced McLuhan’s phrases and concepts that he contributed to our society; ‘global village’, ‘hot and cool media’, and ‘the medium is the message’. In the Preface to the third printing of this book,  he addresses the criticism about his chapter on the “Medium is the Message” by explaining that he doesn’t focus on content and instead explores the greater cultural effect of the medium; “The section on ‘the medium is the message’ can, perhaps, be clarified by pointing out that any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes” (vi-vii).

With this in mind, moving cultural artifacts and documents to the Web changes their nature, as does providing library services over the Web instead of in person. These are not reasons to cease digitization or service over the Web, but they are important factors to understand when our mission is to serve the best interests of our community.  Knowing the impact of the medium as well as the information content of what we do is a key part of our responsibility as stewards of our intellectual and cultural heritage.

Another significant aspect of this book is how it explores the effect of a broad scope of technologies throughout history starting with the “spoken word” to print to electronic media like radio and television. The chapters on “the Written Word”, “The Printed Word”, and “The Telegraph”, are particularly relevant to our philosophical underpinnings as librarians and as citizens of Western culture. Even though he died in 1980 and never experienced the internet, his chapters are prophetic in how they anticipate the many social and technological manifestations of electronic information including the Web over the Internet.

If one wishes to be a reflective practitioner of librarianship then having some understanding of McLuhan and his media metaphors is a critical task. Eric Schnell from the Ohio State University Libraries, is one example of a librarian who has named his blog after McLuhan’s phrase “The Medium is the Message” and explores “libraries, technology, innovation and trends (with respect to Marshall McLuhan)”.

McLuhan’s metaphors are both rich for exploration and courts much controversy so this will be the first of many posts on this theme.

Digitization from Good to Great

After reading Jim Collins’ Good to Great, the first question that came to mind was, “Libraries don’t measure success by their stock performance so how can this apply to my situation?”. There is clearly value in the concepts of picking the right people, thinking deeply and clearly about your situation, and applying core understanding with rigor and consistency but the underlying metric of  success in economic terms is problematic.  Fortunately, he produced a supplemental piece called Good to Great and the Social Sectors to address this problem by tweaking the measurements of greatness so they can more directly apply to non-profits such as libraries in higher education.

Particularly useful is the clarification of output measures unique to the social sector and how to assess these outcomes through fulfillment of mission either in qualitative or quantitative terms.  On page 5, Collins says,

The confusion between inputs and outputs stems from one of the primary differences between business and the social sectors. In business, money is both an input (a resource for achieving greatness) and an output (a measure of greatness). In the social sectors, money is only an output, and not a measure of greatness.

Since money is not valuable as an output metric something else must take its place. He uses the Cleveland Orchestra as an example of what to focus on when assessing things that are hard to measure.  The three foci mentioned on page 6 concern finding evidence of superior performance, distinctive impact, and lasting endurance.

How could a digital library collect this type of evidence?  Using metrics from the Web is one way but that is still too close to a traditional input.  Getting testimonials from members of the university, other schools copying the digital library program, wider use in the classroom, and good brand reputation are several ways of determining outcomes of valued use and mission fulfillment.

One action to take from reading this book is to develop a “Hedgehog Concept” by deeply examining and defining your three circles from page 19:

1. What you are deeply passionate about –

organization’s core values and mission

2. What you can be best in the world at

unique contributions

3. What drives your resource engine (as opposed to economic in business)

3 parts – time, money and brand

Digitization efforts have a vast potential and the temptation is to try and pursue all of them.  However, success and greatness take disciplined planning and action.  Current examples at the CONTENTdm Upper Midwest User Group meeting demonstrated that this is true.  Those who are presenting successful programs had a good core focus and collected things that were unique to their institutions.  One factor that remains to be determined is the longevity of those programs as most have been around less than 5 years.

This book is very helpful for anyone who is planning a digital library program or wants to improve one that already exists. It helps to refocus effort and to take a step back to see if that effort is producing excellent results.