Diagnosing the Digital Revolution

Why it’s so hard to tell whether it’s really changing us.

They gave her The Device when she was only 2 years old. It sent signals along the optic nerve that swiftly transported her brain to an alternate universe—a captivating other world. By the time she was 7 she would smuggle it into school and engage it secretly under her desk. By 15 the visions of The Device—a girl entering a ballroom, a man dying on the battlefield—seemed more real than her actual adolescent life. She would sit with it, motionless, oblivious to everything around her, for hours on end. Its addictive grip was so great that she often stayed up half the night, unable to put it down.

When she grew up, The Device dominated her house: no room was free from it, no activity, not even eating or defecating, was carried on without its aid. Even when she made love it was the images of The Device that filled her mind. Psychologists showed that she literally could not disengage from it—if The Device could reach the optic nerve, she would automatically and inescapably be in its grip. Neuroscientists demonstrated that large portions of her brain, parts that had once been devoted to understanding the real world, had been co-opted by The Device.

A tale of the dystopian technological future? No, just autobiography. The Device is, of course, the printed book and I’ve been its willing victim all my life. But this might be how Sherry Turkle would describe it in her new book, Alone Together, and, in some ways, she’d be right.

The story illustrates why it’s so hard to know how new technologies will affect us. Some technologies really have reshaped our lives, minds, and societies. Print did change everything. So did the telegraph. Information had always traveled at the speed of a fast horse; suddenly, it traveled at the speed of electricity, from 10 miles an hour to millions. (The old movie newspaper clichés “Get me rewrite!” “Tear up the afternoon edition!” seem like part of a timeless past, but they actually reflect the elaborate and ingenious technologies that took advantage of telegraphic immediacy—”Extra, extra!” was a ping and a pop-up.)

But other changes that seemed equally profound at the time have turned out, in retrospect, to be minor. The radio was an improvement on the telegraph but it didn’t have the same exponential, transformative effect. How do we know when and how changing your technology will change your life?

Sherry Turkle has been chronicling the impact of the digital revolution for some 20 years. In her Alone Together she focuses on two developments, social robots and Internet communications (texting, Second Life, e-mail, Facebook). Her method is ethnographic—she interviews people, especially children and adolescents, at length about how they feel about those technologies. Turkle is a sensitive interviewer and an elegant writer, and her book captures the anxiety and ambivalence that children and adolescents (and adults, too) feel about the new developments. Her general conclusion is that those anxieties are justified. Both robots and the Web will have a profound, and bad, effect on human psychology. Technology will lead to devalued and alienated lives rather than enriched ones.

When the ethnographic “clinical interview” method is done well, as Turkle does it, it can give us an excellent picture of what people think about the effects of technology. The trouble is that it doesn’t tell us what those effects actually are. The children she talks to are remarkably thoughtful, but they are also contradictory: Robots are sort of people, but then again they’re just machines; cell phones make parents more intrusive, or maybe more distant. Turkle quotes Niels Bohr’s statement that the opposite of a profound truth is sometimes another profound truth, but fails to mention his preamble that the opposite of a fact is a falsehood. Facts about the effects of technology are thin on the ground. For example, there are remarkably few firm scientific conclusions from 50 years of psychological research on children and television.

There is also the problem of what psychologists call the “cultural ratchet effect.” We learn differently as children than as adults. For grown-ups, learning a new skill is painful, attention-demanding, and slow. Children learn unconsciously and effortlessly. Because of this, each new generation rapidly acquires all the accumulated innovations of the past without even knowing it. The story of The Device is startling because we were born with print. The new generation, in turn, will consciously alter those earlier practices and invent new ones. They can take the entire past for granted as they move toward the future.

These generational shifts are the engine of cultural innovation, and they are particularly relevant for technological change—our children will talk digital as a native language, while we speak it haltingly with an immigrant accent. But generational shifts go beyond technology. They also produce entirely arbitrary changes, like the historical changes from Elizabethan words or dances or dresses to ours. Even in the Neolithic period, pottery decorations changed over generations. These changes can feel significant even though they actually don’t alter much of anything. The telegraph really did mean The End of Civilization As We Knew It, but the waltz and the crinoline caused just as much angst.

This immediate generational transformation, the click of the ratchet, is so vivid that the long historical changes and constancies are hard to see. The year before you were born looks like Eden, the year after your children were born looks like Mad Max.

Which of the effects that Turkle and other digital pessimists attribute to technology really are radical transformations, and which are relatively small changes magnified by the ratchet effect? Is the Internet the telegraph or just the crinoline? Some of the stories Turkle tells seem awfully like false nostalgia. A young woman feels guilty because she surreptitiously writes e-mail while she is Skyping (for hours!) with her distant grandmother. A teenager complains that her mother is distracted by her cell phone when she picks her up from school. Did we really once listen to our grandmothers with undivided attention? Were adolescent girls delighted by the rich and meaningful conversations they had with their mothers? Is the teenager who comes home from school and IMs her friends while she updates her Facebook page really much worse off than the one who came home and watched Gilligan’s Island reruns? (More autobiography there.)

Turkle and her interviewees sometimes seem to treat minor variations on human nature like threatening psychological revolutions. For example, Turkle and many of her subjects worry that people might interact with nonhuman simulacra, like robots, as if they were people, and might lose themselves in imaginary worlds like Second Life.

But, after all, a majority of young children communicate extensively with imaginary companions, creatures who are even more elusive than robots since they don’t exist at all. All normal children become immersed in unreal pretend worlds. And their elders do the same. Is the Turklean child who cries over a Furby really all that different from the Dickensian one who weeps for a doll? Is the lonely widow who talks to a robot really all that different than the one who talks to her dead husband’s picture? Or religiously follows the lives of soap opera characters? Is a Second Life romance all that different from a Harlequin one?

And what about the fact that we communicate through highly abstract signals, rather than face to face? Take texting, surely the most baffling technological success of our age. We’ve harnessed vast computational power to let us write telegrams with our thumbs. Turkle and the teenagers contrast texting nostalgically, not only with live conversation, but with that day-before-yesterday Eden of the telephone—a technology that once seemed equally threatening.

But, at least since writing began, perhaps even since language itself began, human beings have conducted their most intimate lives through abstract, digital symbols. Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell carried on their love affair through the London post, writing several times a day, and Proust used the equally rapid and frequent pneumatic petits bleus of Paris. London letters were delivered 12 times a day and a petit bleu arrived two hours after it was sent (not much more slowly than an AT&T connection and probably more reliably). The Henry James story “The Great Good Place” is a utopian fantasy about unhooking from the grid and begins with a bitter lament at the inundation of telegrams and overflow of obligations that will be familiar to anyone with a bulging inbox.

Another worry is about attention. It is certainly true that by the time we’re adults attention is a limited resource and attentional patterns are hard to change. But the exaggerated highly-focused attention we consider appropriate in a contemporary classroom is itself a recent cultural invention, and one with costs as well as benefits. Guatemalan Mayan mothers successfully teach their children to divide their attention, as Western mothers teach children to focus theirs.

Despite all this, Turkle and the digital pessimists may be onto something. There is something about the Internet that seems genuinely different—a telegraphlike transformation. But it isn’t the result of changes in the speed or character of communications. Texts and e-mails travel no faster than phone calls and telegrams, and their content isn’t necessarily richer or poorer.

Turkle may be right, though, that there is a transformative difference in how many people we interact with, though it would be nice to have some objective evidence. There is an anthropological observation that most of us can keep track of only a couple of hundred people—a village-worth. The rise of cities just led us to define that village sociologically instead of geographically. City dwellers learn not to acknowledge, or even see, most of the people they pass on the street, a skill that seems baffling and obnoxious to rural visitors. The post and the petit bleu connected a relatively small urban literary circle.

The Web expands that circle exponentially. When we do a Google search we aren’t consulting a brilliant computer, but the aggregated opinions of millions of other people. Facebook, which began as a way of digitally defining your social network, rapidly increases it beyond recognition. On the Web we communicate with the planet relying on a psychology that was designed for the village. You used to listen to your friends and Walter Cronkite, and, unless you were Walter, you could assume that your friends were the ones listening to you. Now it’s much harder to tell whom we should listen to and who is listening to us, or at least we haven’t yet figured out how to do it. We can edit out the obnoxious guy on the street more easily than the anonymous flame on the blog. On the Web we all become small-town visitors lost in the big city.

Even these reactions aren’t completely new, though. City dwellers never entirely succeeded in turning Manhattan into Peoria, and they didn’t really want to. The contradictory emotions Turkle describes are the characteristic urban emotions—excitement, novelty, and possibility balanced against loneliness, distraction, and alienation, and they seem to have arisen almost as soon as cities themselves. We were alone together in ancient Rome and 11th-century Kyoto. Long before even the printed book, Horace and Lady Murasaki reacted to the life of their physical cities by yearning for simplicity, mindfulness, and meaning. Turkle’s children also seem to yearn for a digital version of the classical pastoral retreat, or the Buddhist monastery. Maybe that would do us all some good. But the villa and the monastery would be much less appealing if we didn’t have the big city and the Web of the wide world to return to.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.