The Corporate Professor   /   Spring 2012   /    Interview

A Conversation with Sherry Turkle

James Nolan and Sherry Turkle

Examining a robot at Detroit Navy Week; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jon Rasmussen/Released; flickr.

Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

James Nolan: You’ve spoken of your book, Alone Together, as a book of repentance. I'm wondering if you could reflect on that statement, in particular as it relates to your two previous books, Life on the Screen and The Second Self.

Sherry Turkle: I admit that characterization is probably on the strong side. In fact, I did express reservations in The Second Self and Life on the Screen, particularly about people getting stuck in simulated worlds, where things are friction free and less complex than in the real world. That lack of complexity is seductive. And I have always been concerned about the seductions of simulation as children grow up. But in general, the first two books were books of discovery. I felt that psychologists—both clinicians and research psychologists—were not paying sufficient attention to the vast new terrain of digital life. Computers were evocative objects that offered psychology so many new questions. From the very beginning, confronted with even simple electronic toys and games computers, children were confronted with the Piagetian questions about what is alive and, indeed, what it means to be a person. And then, in virtual worlds, people were able to play with identity in new ways.

Certainly by 1995, when I wrote Life on the Screen, the thing that most excited me about cyberspace was my finding that those who made the most of their lives on the screen were those who approached it in a spirit of self reflection. I was excited by the idea that we could use what we learned in the virtual to improve our lives in the real.

And then some things changed that changed my mind. So when I said “repentance,” I think I meant repentance for not seeing these things that were changing. For example, one important change was a new direction in artificial intelligence [AI]. In particular, I began to see a new kind of robotics—a kind known as sociable robotics.

The artificial intelligence that I had researched for The Second Self and Life on the Screen was an AI where researchers were trying to make the computer smart. In sociable robotics the intent was less to make the computer smart than to make a “creature” that pushed people’s buttons, to do what was necessary to convince people that this machine was sentient and cared about them. It was playing on what the AI scientists knew about people’s make-up. The point is not so much that the machine is smart but that we are vulnerable. So, for example, I began to see sociable robots that looked you in the eye, kept eye contact, said your name, tracked your motion.

And there was something else. It turns out that if an artificial being, no matter how primitive, asks us for nurturance, we attach to it. Think of the little Tamagotchis, the little virtual creatures on tiny little screens that kids carried around in the late 1990s. These Tamagotchis asked you to feed them, amuse them, and clean up after them. When they did this, we attached. People nurture what they love, but they also love what they nurture. And that whole direction in sociable robotics, to create artificial creatures that might some day become substitutes for human companionship, and the realization of how vulnerable we are to such creatures, was something I really didn’t encounter until 1995, as I was finishing Life on the Screen.

Research on this new research tradition and our vulnerability to sociable robotics became a major preoccupation of mine. Every year a new sociable robot would come out, and every year I would embark on a new study of kids and this new robot. I studied Furbies, Aibos, My Real Babies. And finally robots were designed for the elderly in nursing homes, and I began to track that story as well.

So the growth of sociable robotics is one thing that changed my mind. People are so vulnerable and so willing to accept substitutes for human companionship in very intimate ways. I hadn’t seen that coming, and it really concerns me that we’re willing to give up something that I think defines our humanness: our ability to empathize and be with each other and talk to each other and understand each other. And I report to you with great sadness that the more I continued to interview people about this, the more I realized the extent to which people are willing to put machines in this role. People feel that they are not being heard, that no one is listening. They have a fantasy that finally, in a machine, they will have a nonjudgmental companion.

You tell the story of a graduate student who says she would prefer a robot over a human relationship.

Yes. And I studied people who are happy now to give these inanimate creatures to the elderly because, well, they say it’s better than nothing. They accept that there’s nobody else for these people. But how did we get to “there’s nobody else”? People have come to accept that we live in a society where there simply aren’t the resources to take care of our elderly. But this is a social decision that these resources are not available.

So Alone Together is a book of repentance in the sense that I did not see this coming, this moment of temptation that we will have machines that will care for us, listen to us, tend to us. That’s the first sense. A second thing that changed my mind has to do with where I see social networking and the internet going. My initial excitement about networked communication took place during a time when I saw the world of online play as an identity workshop: a place where people experimented with avatars, played out aspects of self that often were not fully expressed in their everyday lives. That still goes on, but now online life has become a life of continual performance. When I studied online life in the mid-1990s, I envisaged it as a place you went to experiment. But now, with our mobile devices “always on/always-on-us,” we are always “on camera.”

I didn’t see that coming, although it was right before me. And with it has come the culture of distraction, which isn’t even experienced as distraction because it’s just how we live. People feel they have the right to customize their lives, to put their attention where they want it to be. If they are at a meeting and want to text, they do. If they are at dinner and want to text, they do. Students in class tell me that that if they don’t check their texts, it makes them anxious. They can’t feel present if they are not also in some way absent. I didn’t see that coming. As in the case of sociable robotics, this new lack of attention to each other is something, again, where I feel that we are not doing our humanness justice.

The first part of your book is on robots, and the second is on social networking. A common theme in both is the way in which these new technologies both express and foster greater loneliness. Can you talk about this paradox, where you find people being more connected than ever, but also more lonely?

We’re moving from conversation to connection. In conversation we’re present to each other in very powerful ways. Conversation is a kind of communication in which we’re alive to each other, empathetic with each other, listening to each other. When we substitute Twitter or status updates on Facebook for this, we’re losing something important. Sometimes it’s not clear to me if it’s the volume, or velocity, or continualness of it. Some kids are up to 10,000, to 15,000 texts a month. That means they’re never not texting. In this cascade of communication, we move from conversation to mere connection. And so we’ve positioned ourselves in a way where we can end up feeling more alone, even as we’re taking actions that would suggest we’re more continually connected. In all of this there is another loss: I think we lose the capacity for solitude, the kind that refreshes and restores. The kind that allows us to reach out to another person.

That’s the communications part of it. The robot part is a complement to it—everything about sociable robotics is designed to convince you that you are connected, but you are connected to nothing. People always say to me, “how is talking to a robot different from talking to a doll?” I’ve studied kids and dolls—whenever I do a robot study, I do a parallel study with a doll. And everything is different with a doll. With a doll you have the psychology of projection. A child will act out with a doll what is on her mind: a little girl with a Barbie who feels guilty because she broke her mother’s china will put the Barbie in detention. Because of its passivity, because it’s inert, the doll is a projective screen for the child’s imagination, fantasies, sense of wonder, anxieties. Everything’s projected onto the doll. But a relational artifact, a sociable robot, is in a position to initiate a conversation. The robot is in a position to voice an opinion. With a robot, one is not free to project what is on one’s mind. The psychology of projection gives way to the psychology of engagement. The robot is presented as active, in place to be a new kind of best friend.

Why do we need robots to do that? With every technology we need to ask if it’s serving our human purposes. What is the human need? What human purpose does it serve to have imitation people, who really aren’t people, pretending to be people? I don’t say that there may not be some interesting reasons, but we need to have a conversation about this. These “creatures” are coming into our culture. We need to have this conversation.

Neil Postman used to propose the question, what is the problem to which this technology is the solution? The ostensible solutions, according to Postman, are often created only after the technology exists, not because there was a real problem to which the technology was the answer. It seems that, inasmuch as an answer is being proposed here, it is that these new technologies address the problem of a kind of loneliness. I remember the quote from one of the people you interviewed who said, “show me someone who wishes for a robot, and I'll show you someone who, if given the option, would prefer a human.”

Right. Because it’s only a collective fantasy that a robot, a machine that does not recognize your existence, can address your loneliness. In my view, this is a fantasy. We need to understand its roots. My research suggests that its roots lie in people having a sense that no one is there to listen to them. We have to acknowledge this. So many of us are lonely. But it does not follow that something that will never experience anything about human life can understand the things we want to talk about, about our lives.

But then people say to me, “but they can make robots good enough to fool us. If they make machines smart enough to convince us they understand, that is good enough.” A common reaction to my book has been: “What are you complaining about? The people in your book, the elderly people who are happy with their robots, can’t tell the difference. My grandmother wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Why not give them this thing? If the machines will be so good we can’t tell the difference, what does it matter?” I think it matters very much. I think our humanity is at stake.

But I noticed in your book that there are people who can tell the difference, in particular, young people. This is interesting because when you think about advances in social media, you usually think of the younger generation as being more comfortable with these new technologies. It’s almost counterintuitive that it’s the young people who are actually frustrated and upset with their parents, who are constantly distracted by their Blackberries and their e-mails. Could you talk about some of these findings, and perhaps discuss what this might mean in terms of how young people might choose to use these technologies in the future.

Well, first of all, I agree that it’s the young people who are frustrated. That’s true in both areas, in the area of sociable robotics and in the area of connectivity. It’s the young people who offer a kind of hope. Baby boomers I interviewed were more likely to say, when talking about robots that might care for their parents, “wow, that could take the burden off me.” There was one man who was visiting his mother regularly. He was so happy that I was starting to give her a robot as part of my study, and he very poignantly said, “You know, when I leave my mother staring at a wall, I feel horrible. When I leave her staring at a tv, I feel bad. When I leave her engaged with a robot, I feel even less guilty.” It’s how it looks that matters to people. If a person is interacting with a robot, it looks like a reassuring kind of engagement. But an eleven-year-old boy considered a robot for his grandfather and said that he was not happy with this idea. He said, “don’t we have people for these jobs?” He sensed, I think, that there is a kind of human meaning that’s falling away.

And also in the realm of connectivity?

In some ways the story of connectivity is even more dramatic, because obviously, young people have so much experience with this. And there, too, I do find that it is young people who offer hope. I thought I was going to be studying teenagers driving their parents crazy. But in fact, I found parents driving their teenagers and younger kids crazy because it was the parents who were texting at breakfast and dinner, or doing e-mail at school pick-up. It was the children complaining: eight- and nine-year-olds complaining that their parents wouldn’t look up from their e-mail when they took them to the park, wouldn’t look up at the jungle gym when they were trying to do a trick. It was the children saying they never had their parent’s full attention. A major theme in the interviews with kids from eight through high school was that they had grown up in a culture of distraction—parental distraction. From the moment they met this technology, it was the competition. Of course, now it is the young who are themselves distracted by the technology. But I do hear people, and especially younger people, talking more and more about a need for greater balance. I hear more and more talk about things such as internet sabbaticals. I think there is room to be cautiously optimistic; I believe we’re going to put this technology in its place. Many of the people I interviewed for Alone Together sensed that something is amiss.

At the same time, very much on my mind right now is an image from last summer. I’m very fortunate to have a cottage on Cape Cod. I can walk the dunes Thoreau walked. I’ve walked those dunes for decades, and people used to walk them with a friend or partner, lover or child. Everybody had their eyes up to the sand, to the sky, to the sea, and this summer it hit me that so many people were walking them with a device in hand. The kid is holding a device; the partner is holding a device. Sometimes somebody’s trying to hold somebody’s hand, and they can’t because there’s the cappuccino, there’s the device. There aren’t enough hands. I’m optimistic because I think that this new generation senses there’s something amiss, But of course, there is still so much evidence of their being trapped in a culture of distraction. I don’t think we have turned the corner yet.

One of your interviewees said something very interesting: “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.” Does that express a kind of technological determinism—we simply don’t have the strength to resist it?

I don’t think in terms of technological determinism. I think in terms of human vulnerabilities: technological affordances and human vulnerabilities. The technologies of mobile connection make us some offers we can’t refuse. Connectivity technology pushes every button. There’s this new research that shows that our iPhones light up our brains in the same places that love lights up our brains. We’re wanted. Somebody wants us, somebody needs us, somebody’s calling to us, somebody remembered us. That’s why it’s so hard to turn away from the red light on the Blackberry: it’s somebody reaching out to us. This technology calls out to the most primitive and fragile parts of ourselves. It calls out to deep elements of our psyche. Otherwise people wouldn’t be texting while they’re driving and literally risking their lives and the lives of their children. We wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t calling on something very deep.

I have to believe we’re going to get this right. There’s plenty of time to make the corrections. But I think right now, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We think we’re connected, both through our new culture of connection and in our new flirtation with sociable robotics. But in both of these areas, we’re accepting substitutions and we’re leaving ourselves more alone and isolated. We’re fooling ourselves.

At one point in the book, you make reference to Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message.” It’s a theme that runs throughout the second part of the book: you observe, for example, that text messages convey something substantively different than a written letter. Following along that line, what different messages are sent when using digital instead of more embodied forms of communication, whether it be face to face or a handwritten letter?

You know, right now, I’m not sure if the issue is digital versus handwritten, because there are some ways text can be used that are very intimate. I’ll give you an example. Shortly after my book came out, I was giving a talk. I was very nervous; it was the first talk on my book tour. My daughter knew it meant a lot to me, and she knew just the time I was going to do it. At the lecture, I put my iPhone on the podium as a timing device. My daughter is twenty, in college, and just as I was putting the phone on the podium, a text message came up from her that said, “Mom, you will rock this.” It was like a kiss. This message was extraordinary. So I don’t want to say that the fact it was digitally communicated and not hand-delivered or written on paper takes away from the intimacy of that moment and what was communicated.

But when the teenagers I interview text from 3,000 to 10,000 texts a month, that culture of connection is leaving things out. Two things that are getting left out are conversation and a capacity for solitude. That isn’t good.

In your discussion of your letters to and from your mother, you talk about how the letters captured something and communicated something that a text message can’t. What is that difference?

For me it has to do with self-reflection. I think that’s what I’m getting at. That’s why I’m trying to talk about volume and velocity and evanescence, not whether a communication is digital or nondigital. With letters you receive, you have them to hold. As you do, you think about the person who wrote them and how they thought about you as they wrote them. As you write a letter, you think about the person you are writing to, your relationship to them, how they will soon hold the letter. And perhaps keep the letter. The process is close to the body. The process is slow. You are creating something that may endure. This is what can be lost in a text. It is quick. You know it will not endure. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in thinking about my mother’s letters and my letters to her.

My daughter does not write me letters or emails. She texts me. My daughter won’t have a record of telling another generation what her week was like. She doesn’t have that context for regularly reflecting on what is important to her, difficult for her. What I miss about this for my daughter is not that we’ve gone digital, but that there was this space for self-reflection that our culture no longer has as the natural order of things. I was kind of forced to do it; communicating with my mother necessitated my doing that. When I was in college, it was not unusual that you wrote a letter home every week. And my mother wrote me every week as well. Now I text my daughter, send her e-mails, give her a quick phone call. But I’m not disciplined, the way my mother was, about my own process of self-reflection. And when I was nostalgic about this to my daughter, she called me on it. When I was talking to her about the difference between what I had and what she will have, my daughter said, “write me a letter,” and so, in a sense I realize that Alone Together is really my letter to her.

So the book is written as a letter to her, but in fact, we have conspired with technology to lose significant spaces of self-reflection. There’s no way, if I’m getting a thousand e-mails a day, that I’m going to be sitting around reflecting as I desperately try to “keep up” with my e-mail. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve cornered ourselves into a communications culture, where I think we’re spending less and less time reflecting. The issue for me is reflection and spaces for reflection. Is this technology helping us find spaces for reflection? I don’t think texting and the way we’re using e-mail is helping us do that right now.

You offer a wonderful definition of community. You write, “communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities.” What do you make of the claim by many that these various social media forums constitute online communities?

Social media satisfy some needs. People feel connected. In some online places, people do feel responsibility and belonging. But in fact, people can just leave when they wish; the friended is not a friend. What I’m finding in my work is that online life can create a sense of disorientation. The speed of online friendship is so fast: you get this sense of intimacy so fast and the sense of close connection; you feel that you’re getting right to the heart of things really quickly. You’re not going through all the hard things that come with a shared life and a shared community; you have the sense of cutting to the chase. That goes on for awhile, and then somehow you don’t know what you have. You don’t know what your responsibilities are. You don’t know what you can ask for. So then people wonder, “Do I have everything; do I have nothing? What do I have?”

It’s fine if you have a couple of those ambiguous relationships; everyone does. But when ambiguous relationships become more and more of your life, people become very disoriented. I have tremendous respect for the support and the connection and the fun that people have online. But I think when we decided to call these online connections “communities” and “relationships,” we chose the words we had available to us, and we confused ourselves.

The best example of this disorientation in my book is the young man who goes online in Second Life. He’s online as an elephant because he finds that whimsical and fun, but he’s playing a role that is very community enhancing, where he helps people. He provides great service to the community, and he’s a superstar pillar of his Second Life community. And as this elephant he befriends a very beautiful French woman whom he speaks to for many hours a week, who says she’s contemplating suicide, and he counsels her and talks to her. I’m speaking to the real man face to face, the man behind the elephant, and he explains to me that much of his feeling good about himself, and a sense of really contributing, comes from his helpfulness in Second Life, and how he’s helping this young French woman avert suicide. And as he’s talking to me—since he’s in Second Life as an elephant—the issue comes up that we don’t know she’s a young French woman—she could be an eighty-year-old guy in a nursing home in Miami. He gets really upset because he’s not really willing to consider this possibility. He’s not really willing to go there. Because even though he’s so sophisticated in the ways of Second Life, his self worth in this community is really that he is helping somebody, a real person, a real young woman avert suicide. And the idea that she is somehow putting him on is very disturbing to him. He’s spending many hours every week in this Second Life community. This is his place. This is a sustaining community for him. But you can see that it is tremendously confusing to him at the same time that he doesn’t know what he has in his relationships there. I’m finding that theme a lot, as I continue to work in this area.

So, it’s not like I have a negative message about these online connections. It’s not that I want to denigrate them. They are tremendously evocative. They can be both enriching and confusing. It’s very important that people have other stuff in their lives because at the end of the day, it’s the other stuff people turn to when they need a real person.

In the book, you talk about how young people profile themselves on Facebook, expend a tremendous amount of energy and time putting forth a certain image, and then ultimately become exhausted by these efforts. You speak of a kind of profiling exhaustion. What are young people doing to get to that point?

Well, for a lot of young people that point of exhaustion comes as a point of crisis. You have to think of the chronology. They’re in high school. They’ve written practice college admission essays from the time they’re sophomores. Then they write college essays, and now they’re writing Facebook updates. A good part of their lives is putting out performances of themselves. They feel as though they are constantly performing.

Of course, we do this all the time. I’m here talking with you and in a certain sense, I’m “playing” Sherry Turkle. But on the phone or in person, you can hear my limits. You can hear my fatigue, my voice, my thinking. You can hear me deciding how I want to answer the question. If we were online doing the interview, you would hear nothing. You would see on your screen a perfectly polished answer. And on Facebook, or for that matter when they describe how they “compose” a text, that’s what they do. They’re constantly performing their perfectly polished selves. And over and over in the interviews, you hear them saying, “I don’t want to talk on the phone because I want to be able to perform the perfectly polished self. That’s why I like Facebook. I can be the self I want to be.” But then, there’s the downside, which is that they’re always performing the self. And that starts to get exhausting. Whereas this interview may go well, or it may not, but basically it’s not tiring in the sense that you’re hearing me warts and all. You didn’t send fifteen questions to which I wrote fifteen answers. This is a conversation.

Right. There’s something very different about that.

And the point is, when we’re with people we feel as though we’re getting some kind of authenticity, and we experience ourselves as authentic. Which is why we go see people in person—we know, no matter how much they’re made up or fluffed up or prepared, we’re going to see the real something. And that’s what these kids are trying to avoid, when they only want to text, when they don’t want to have a conversation, and that’s what they’ve become exhausted by. They’ve put themselves in a world where they are performing all the time. They have organized a world where they’re always at their screen. That’s when they just kind of crack and find some way to drop out for awhile.

It becomes unsustainable.

Yes, that’s what I tried to capture in the part of the book where I write about performance exhaustion. High school students describe this terror of conversation because they feel that they’ve gotten so used to performing, so used to composing a self, that they lose confidence that they know how to talk to each other, to listen to each other. This one kid—I think he’s sixteen—said to me that someday, not now, but someday, he wants to learn how to have a conversation. And he’s admitting that this is something that eludes him. He’s lived a life where he really can avoid conversation.

So the technology is beginning to shape our behavior. You talk about how we make technologies, and then our technologies make us. My question is, what are we becoming? And are these technologies making us less human?

We are allowing technology to lead us in two directions that for me call into question elements of our humanness. The first is inappropriate substitution: whether it is the substitution of an object or a program that doesn’t understand human meaning when you really need to talk to a person or the substitution of connection for conversation. So I think we are at a moment of temptation. We are tempted to accept substitutions where substitutions should not be considered, where substitutions constitute a lessening of our humanity. The second is our growing incapacity for solitude. The question of solitude is relevant to the issues of both connectivity and robotics. I was recently in the Netherlands, speaking on Alone Together, and somebody said to me, “I see sociable robots as solving the problem of solitude.” At first I thought I was having a problem with their English, that what they meant to say was that the robots were “solving the problem of loneliness.” I said, “Don’t you mean solving the problem of loneliness?” They said, “No, solving the problem of solitude.” I worry that we don’t even know the difference between these two words anymore.

That’s very interesting.

It’s as though we don’t even have the word “solitude” anymore where solitude is a good thing. I have heard this formulation, how we need to “solve the problem of solitude,” not just on this one occasion. So, for example, people think of always having a device at hand as a way to solve the problem of solitude. We have a very hard time thinking of a life that does not include reaching for a device when one is alone. So you reach for a device or you put in a robot to solve the problem of an elderly person alone—it’s not even feasible that they might be having a moment of solitude. There’s a story in my book that I like very much: an older woman talks about her aunt who used to sit combing her hair in front of the mirror, and how she remembers her aunt not as senile, just reflecting on her life. And nobody in the family worried about this woman being alone. Sometimes she came down to join the family, and they spoke to her, but she spent a lot of time alone, looking at pictures, combing her hair, reading quietly. Nobody thought, “we’ve got to give her a robot, she’s spending too many hours alone.” She was just reflecting on her life. There was a sense that she had a capacity for solitude. And I think we have an increasingly hard time even imagining that, imagining anything but loneliness. Robots are not yet widespread in the culture, but already we see people dreaming of how something as simple as Siri, the conversational agent on the iPhone, might get “smarter” as “she” grows up, might be something that they might talk to. A best friend that would never judge them. They would never have to be alone. And of course, our connectivity devices give us the fantasy that we will never have to be alone.


In the review of my book in the New York Times, I was taken to task for being nostalgic about cafés in which people were present, and not elsewhere. Present to themselves in solitude. And present to each other, in conversation with each other. So I gave this a lot of thought. I went to the cafés again, I looked around, I saw everybody buried in their devices, and I wondered if I was being nostalgic and curmudgeonly. I’m sticking to my guns. The capacity for solitude is crucial to our ability to reach out to people, not in anxiety but with a genuine ability to forge relationships. And it was wonderful when people spoke to the other people who were in the same physical spaces.

I understand. I’m thinking about what used to happen when people got on a plane. It used to be that they would have a conversation with the person sitting next to them. It might only be brief, but no one does that anymore. Everyone just sits down and plugs in.

Right. Actually, I had an interesting experience at a panel discussion on internet etiquette with two advice columnists from The Boston Globe. Somebody in the audience asked “what is the correct etiquette when you’re in a check-out line, with a real human check-out person, and you have your phone and want to text? I’m a working mom, I don’t have a lot of time, and this is a perfect time for me to be in touch with my friends. But I can tell that the guy at the check-out line doesn’t like it.” The two advice columnists said basically that he is there to be your check-out person, his job is to check you out, so you should feel free to text as much as you want. I was third in the lineup, and I’m not an advice columnist at all—I’m certainly not an expert on etiquette—but I said, “we know that checking out is something a computer can do by scanning the bar code, but until a computer is doing this job, why treat this man like a computer? There is a person here who clearly does not want to be treated like a computer.”

And perhaps we’re annoyed he’s acting like a human?

Yes, that was really my take-home from this interchange. The two advice columnists were lovely people—they weren’t science fiction people whose life commitment is to get rid of people and replace them with machines. These were two etiquette people who were saying, “this is the way things are now,” and they had already turned what happens at the check-out into an instrumental transaction. Because the check-out person was doing a job that could be done by a machine, he was “as if” a machine. Once you instrumentalize, once you see a job and think a computer could do it, you start to see the people who are still doing those jobs as already on their way to being machines. Those are the ways in which I think we’re changing, where we expect more from technology and less from each other; we’re treating each other as less human.