Technology and Change – Open Letter

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

September 27, 2015

Dear Prof. Turkle,

I agree with the premise in your Sept. 26, 2015 New York Times Opinion piece, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” There is too much fragmented connection and too much divided attention in our lives. This results in reduced communication, which creates reduced cooperation – and we need cooperation to survive. Our work on PolySocial Reality (PoSR) (2011-2015), explores the nature of these messaging structures and some of the outcomes, many of which are fragmented and the result of the divided attention you observe.

However, your suggestion of disconnecting as a partial solution is a risky enterprise. Not that it shouldn’t be done. Not that we don’t need to disconnect as creatures. But we have created a world, where disconnecting is both unrealistic at best, and painful at worst, and at the moment, we don’t have the psychological and practical tools required to deal with that on a massive scale.

Let me explain. In the U.S., there is a dwindling middle class, and there is a lack of opportunity for many as jobs move overseas or automate. There is a shift, precisely due to automation, that requires people to be online — to receive texts and messages from places that used to make phone calls, or enable in-person service. The foundation of modern business has “moved to the cloud,” and the labor has shifted in many places to a prosumer model, requiring consumers to do more tasks that used to be done by hired employees. Applin and Fischer (2011) refer to this concept as “Forced Compliance,” when one has to be online to do things because that is the only way to do them.

“Mom and Dad” might be on their phones constantly because to maintain family infrastructure, health and well-being, they have to book doctor’s appointments, car repair, government services, and other necessities to family life, online. Their jobs at companies who run “lean, agile” systems have compressed the work of three employees into one: theirs. Or, with poor minimum wages and rising costs to live, parents may have to work more than one job and the only “break” they have to interact with their families is online. Parents and others are stretched with time, and the time they do have, they need to compress to get their work done. Applin and Fischer (2013) wrote “Asynchronous Adaptations to Complex Social Interactions,” concluding that a new model of personal asynchronous time has emerged as a result of the nature of mobile devices providing new ways for people to time shift to cope with these changes and the demands upon them to respond.

What is missing in your great essay is the safety net for the proposals you make. Don’t get me wrong, I support disconnecting, but not everyone can for practical reasons as outlined above, and also for personal, emotional, and psychological reasons. Consider the possibility that disconnection and solitude provide the vacuum that ignites existential crises. It’s possible. When one is not busy trying to do all the things they need to do and must do, and one takes time to sit, what remains is ourselves and the reality of the world we’ve created for ourselves and the legacy we are leaving for today’s children.

That world and that legacy have some serious, perhaps irreversible problems: global health and hunger; clean water access; safety from violence in governments and from others; shrinking Arctic and Antarctic ice caps; industrial waste, etc. Furthermore, the media has created role models and a form of programming that over time have reinforced unreasonable created “norms” as norms. We are not all young and beautiful; women are not servants created for the pleasure of men; men are not all well-muscled and capable of combat; we can’t all own mega-yachts and vacation in St. Tropez, etc.

When we disconnect, we come to terms with the reality of the world we live within. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, but really, we’re all going to need coping mechanisms if your scenario is realized on a massive scale. In disconnecting, there will be an aggregate population of people in crisis — about their roles, their identities, and their lives and with no real way to handle the overwhelming tasks that are now required of them to complete online for their survival and for that of their families.

Many people are online because they must be, and with a tool that increases personal time definition, the real problem in our lives is sufficient shared experience in unplugged intervals. But for the reasons I’ve mentioned, sufficient shared experience in unplugged intervals can be challenging.

Even if we target the “app generation,” who are impatient and expect algorithmic results in the world, we must acknowledge that our dependence (whether we like it or not) is now on a world being made by groups of people who share the view that there should be ubiquitous, pervasive experiences taking place solely through systems of their design and ownership. This is not social. However, the people making this world are very social — just not with the people in their local locale whom they do not know.

In my observations, the “app generation” is highly social, well connected to each other through apps that teach them about each other’s minds. They’ve created a customized society outside their local locale and it works for them, perhaps at the exclusion of those in their local environment. However, when these people do meet in groups to work on laptops and socialize both in and out of the network, they are close. You observed “light conversation” but did you consider that “light conversation” in combination with the conversation record on the online back channel? Together, this may form a more complete record of sociability.

People do show empathy, with or without phones. They just don’t often show empathy to people they don’t know or have anything in common with. We’re evolving that way as evidenced by both parts of our government and its proposed policies, and the worldwide response to the refugee crisis. Walls are being built to block people searching for an escape from an untenable situation. That is lack of empathy for unknown others on a grand scale.

Lack of empathy for unknown others could be due to the conditions of living in a highly fragmented, heterogeneous society with many different “norms” and a technology that conveniently enables members of that society to connect with those who share their norms and ignore those who don’t.

Blaming a technology and suggesting we rid ourselves of it, even temporarily, isn’t going to fix the problem of not extending ourselves to reach across to those who are different. For that we need to change our biases towards our preferred “norms,” extending ourselves to include those not like us in meaningful, social ways.

That is the block to empathy. Technology merely enables us to more easily ignore those not like us.


Sally Applin