24 February 2013

No Man is an Island...Well, Maybe Sometimes

Cover image courtesy of Turkle.
Purchase a copy @ Amazon, BN, Powell's, or your local bookshop.

The technology-connectivity paradox. Throughout the text, Sherry Turkle (professor of awesome stuff [otherwise known as the Initiative on Technology and Self] at MIT) reiterates the notion that we (individually and culturally) expect increasingly more from technology and less from other people. In short, we're more connected, but seemingly also more alone. While there is ample observational material and historical data to support this claim, I think a slight caveat is warranted. Don't we also expect more (educationally, productively, etc.) from each other? Maybe this is a different conceptualization that what Turkle has in mind, but it seems worth consideration. With all the various nodes and connections and the ease with which they can be (re)created, aren't the expectations heightened? We expect more from each new robot or iOS app, can't it also be said that we also expect more from the users?

Perhaps not always explicitly or consciously, but it seems as though teachers now expect more of students (with the presumed ease of access research should be more in-depth, dots should be connected quicker, wow-factor should increase exponentially), students expect more of teachers (who should resemble a walking/talking Wikipedia Google), employers expect immediate responses and instantaneous recall from employees (digital cogs in the machine with ever-faster processing chips). A range of technologies now make it easier than ever before to access information and connect with people. The increased volume and velocity of access has also boosted expectations for how to utilize/repurpose the information. To me, this appears a classic example of co-evolution -- we create new technologies and in turn the technologies shape how we live. Since this co-evolving dynamic is something we cannot overcome, we therefore have a responsibility to understand it, perhaps even directing it.

Seizing just this sort of opportunity, Turkle probes our relationship with specific technologies in order to suggest the values and purpose driving our relationships with technology in general. With a range of subjects (young and old; men and women; human and robotic), Turkle's research suggests overarching patterns, but also identifies generational-specific tendencies. Reading Alone Together through an educationally-oriented lens, the material about connectivity and networking ("Part Two" of the book) is particularly applicable to my aims. Although the sections about robotic eldercare, sociable toys, mechanical toddlers, etc. are outside my immediate interests, the information is both engaging and illustrative. Indeed, much of what Turkle says about robots is translatable to the educational realm. Hybridity. Rorschach. Prostheses. Relationship. Simulation. Power. Expectation. All of these concepts Turkle uses to examine the human-robot relationship are equally at play for understanding the technology-learning relationship. Beneath it all is a question of why, quickly followed by what if. Why are we doing what we are doing? Is there another way to do this...what if?

In recapping her long (30+ years) history of research on technology/connectivity/communication, Turkle mentions the drastic and profound shift she's noticed during recent decades. In the early history of computing, there was focus on power of one-on-one interaction (user-computer). More recently, the attention has (understandably) shifted toward the potential for one-on-infinite interaction (user-computer-infinite users) where the computer (or other device) acts as an intermediary. For me, this is a foundational point for reconsidering the role of technology (computer and otherwise) in education. It is important to think not just in terms of what one person can do as an individual plugged into a computing device. Rather, the real potential resides with many individuals connected (via computing devices) as a community. There is tremendous opportunity for the internet as the medium of informational/educational/creative connectivity. However, before such potential can be fully realized, it is necessary to understand

Turkle's work is impressive, albeit also a bit intimidating. Her research is fascinating, engaging, and remarkably important. For a burgeoning researcher/writer with similar technological/cultural interests, Alone Together provides an ideal template toward which I can strive. The mix of historical analysis, in-depth fieldwork, and clinical interviews (very similar to fieldwork, but in a controlled environment) affords Turkle a unique understanding -- what she call an "intimate ethnography." Incorporating these various perspectives, Turkle is well-suited to understand the complex dynamic relationship between humans (individual and social) and technologies. Daunting as the scope and depth of Turkle's research is, it also offers a great reminder of the importance of this type of work.

Turkle is definitely a 21st century public intellectual. To be clear, this is a great thing! A much touted, but not always well-practiced concept, public intellectualism helps bridge the town and gown divide, promotes engaging/understandable research, encourages broad based discussion of pressing topics. Academics no longer wear clerical gowns (or at least most don't, save for commencements), but there remains a rather distinct barrier between a lot of academic research and public consumption (this is, in part, what the White House public access memorandum is about). Whether writing digestible books,  tweeting about her (and tangential) research, appearing on various media outlets (including the spot-on interview with Stephen Colbert embedded below), Sherry Turkle takes great effort to reach beyond the traditional academic venues, adding her research and voice to the public dialogue. 

In fact, Turkle's research has such crossover appeal that comedian Aziz Ansari (this guy is seriously funny and his material [evident by watching just a few moments of his role as tech-dependent Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec] connects to Turkle's research in amazing and insightful ways) made explicit mention of Alone Together during an interview with The AV Club.
I’m also reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle—this lady is at MIT and has done a ton of research about text-messaging. Here’s a notion she threw out in a TED talk that’s well worth watching—it blew my mind. From her interviews, she found young people are so used to texting that they can’t have proper in-person conversations, because they are accustomed to being able to wait, write, and rewrite their sentences when having conversations over texts. Isn’t that terrifying, and doesn’t it make sense? I’d love for her to see my new show. Sherry, if you are reading this, hit me up. Stuff like that really gets my mind inspired to write. I just find that so intriguing. 
Aziz Ansari - actor, comedian, tech scholar, Turkle PR manager
Ansari pinpoints the widespread importance and appeal of Turkle's work. Not only does his comment indicate why we mush race to answer the questions posed in Alone Together, but it also suggests why Turkle's work is so important to the future of higher education. If young people (i.e. students) are inhabiting in a world that inhibits the communicative maturity, think about what this suggests for learning, creativity, critical thinking, discussion, post-classroom on-the-job problem posing. Turkle directly addresses how the latest generations are growing up in an environment of continuous connectivity. While this constancy may provide various benefits, it also creates new obstacles and insecurities. Volume and velocity can help, but just as easily hinder learning. Moreover, since they've never known anything other than a culture of rampant information and constant connectivity, young people are particularly vulnerable to the aloneness created by device-mediated relationships.

Just like Ansari, "Stuff like that really gets my mind inspired to write. I just find that so intriguing." For me the big ah-ha moment of Alone Together came late in the book. Don't get me wrong, the entire text was interesting, but my most frantic underlying and copious marginalia is found around the discussion of what Turkle calls realtechnik. Other writers have expressed similar concepts, but Turkle's version is strongly linked with issues of connectivity, which I see at the heart of the technology-in-education. According to Turkle, "realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphant or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology." In short, realtechnik is critical thinking about technology and our relationship with it. Technology isn't a savior, nor is it a demon. It won't fix everything, but it certainly won't ruin everything. Really, it comes down to connections. How do we connect with tech, information, environment, people, ourselves?

It's about promise, but also about problems. The either/or binary is outmoded. It is not a matter of no technology or all technology. The 21st century requires a dynamic this/and approach. We must acknowledge and address the pros and cons of technology in tandem. Turkle offers not a cautionary tale, but a conscientious one. She stresses the importance of thinking critically about the how and why of technology. This is a mode of thinking that can be applied to various technological realms -- to robots and to education.  Technology isn't going away. We need to learn how to maximize its educational potential. 

Want to know more about connectivity in a device-mediated world? Get a nice synopsis of Turkle's argument and its significance for our daily activities by watching her 2012 TED Talk (embedded below). You can always dig deeper -- read the book, explore the Initiative on Technology and Self website, listen to Turkle on NPR, or follow the developing narrative on this blog.

and, just in case your curious...

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, excerpt from Meditation XVII (1632)