Is our connected world just getting lonelier?

We’re more connected than ever before, but we are also more isolated and more alone, says Sherry Turkle.

In a newly released TED talk, the psychologist admits that she’s something of a paradox – a woman who sleeps with her cellphone next to her and loves receiving texts, but who also feels that “too many of them can be a problem”.

Back in 1996, when Turkle delivered her first TED talk, she had just written “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of Internet”, in which she celebrated the way in which life was being lived increasingly online.
Fast forward 15 years and now she’s not so sure that digital technology and the explosion in social media is taking the world in the right direction.

“As a psychologist, what excited me the most was the idea that we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity to live better lives in the real world," she said.

“I’m still excited by technology but we are letting it take us places that we don’t want to go. Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.”

As evidence of this, she pointed to the way in which technology has fundamentally changed the way people behave around each other so that things that were unacceptable even five years ago have now become familiar.

For example, people text and email on their phones during meetings and in classes, or while conversing with others - she quips that it is becoming a new skill to text while maintaining eye contact. Parents will text and email at the breakfast or dinner table. Turkle claimed she had even seen people on their devices at funerals.

“We are setting ourselves up for trouble, trouble certainly in how we relate to each other but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves for self-relation.

“We are getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customise their lives [and have] control over where they put their attention.”

This being “alone together” is leading to something else that unsettles her – the “sacrifice of conversation for mere connection”. The gradual replacement of real conversation with “sips” of interaction via Twitter or our Facebook pages is not a good thing in Turkle’s view because it means that people will not have the conversations that allow them to really get to know and understand each other.

In her 15 years of research into the impact of the internet on human interaction, Turkle has encountered people young and old who admit that they would “rather text than talk”.

Now it’s of no surprise to her that even sociable robots are being developed to provide companionship to human beings.

“We expect more from technology and less from each other,” she told the audience at Long Beach, California.

At the heart of our ever increasing dependency on social media and technology is the sense that “no one is listening to me”.

Turkle believes that people are spending more and more time with machines because we are “lonely but afraid of intimacy”.

The other great appeal, she noted, was the way in which social media allows us to edit our lives and present ourselves how we want to be seen by others.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter “give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”.

It's the idea that “we will never have to be alone”.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved and so people try to solve it by connecting. But connection is more like a symptom than a cure.

“The problem is that if we don’t have connection we don’t feel like ourselves, so we connect more and more but in the process we set ourselves up to be isolated.”

Turkle argued that the way out of this conundrum lies in human being learning how to enjoy solitude so that they can “gather themselves” and “form real attachments”. They also need to create "sacred spaces" whether at home or in the work - areas where the gadgets get switched off.

“We turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or to feel alive. When this happens we are not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we are using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self,” she continued.

“We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone but actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we are not able to be alone we are going to be more lonely and if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they are only going to be lonely.”

Turkle closed her talk with a call for conversation about where the world’s current use of technology might be taking us and “what it might be costing us”.

She said: “We spend our evenings on social networks instead of going to the pub with friends but our fantasies of substitution have cost us. Now we all need to focus on the many, many ways that technology can lead us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities, our own planet.

“They need us. Let’s talk about how we can use digital technology to make this life the life that we can love.”