Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other - Sherry Turkle (2011)
I return from Dublin to Boston in September 2009. I have brought my daughter Rebecca to Ireland and helped her to set up her dorm room for a gap year before starting college in New England. I’m one day back from Dublin, and I have already had a lot of contact with Rebecca, all of it very sweet. There are text messages: she forgot a favorite red coat; she wants her green down “puff” jacket and a pink scarf she would like to drape over her bed as a canopy. Could I please mail them to her? I assemble her parcel and send a text: “On the way to the Post Office.” I have downloaded Skype and am ready for its unforgiving stare. Yet, even on my first day home, I feel nostalgic. I sit in my basement surrounded by musty boxes, looking for the letters that my mother and I exchanged during my first year in college, the first time I lived away from home. The telephone was expensive. She wrote twice a week. I wrote once a week. I remember our letters as long, emotional, and filled with conflict. We were separating, finding our way toward something new. Forty years later, I find the letters and feel as though I hold her heart in my hands.
As the days pass, I am in regular contact with my daughter on Skype and by text. As though under some generational tutelage, I feel constrained to be charming and brief in our breezy, information-filled encounters. Once, while texting, I am overtaken by a predictable moment in which I experience my mortality. In forty years, what will Rebecca know of her mother’s heart as she found her way toward something new?
Now, holding my mother’s letters, it is hard to read their brightness and their longing. She wrote them when she was dying and didn’t want me to know. Her letters, coded, carried the weight of future letters that would never be written. And once a week, I wrote her a letter, telling my mother what I wanted her to know of my life. In discretion, there were significant omissions. But I shared a lot. She was my touchstone, and I wanted her to understand me. My letters tried to create the space for this conversation.
My daughter’s texts and Skype presence leave no space of this kind. Is this breeziness about our relationship, or is it about our media? Through my daughter’s senior-class friends—she attended an all-girl’s day school—I know a cohort of mothers whose daughters have just left for college or their first year away from home. I talk to them about their experiences and the part that technology is playing.
The “mother narratives” have a certain similarity. They begin with an affirmation of the value of technology: mothers insist that they are more frequently in touch with their daughters than, as one puts it, “I would have ever dared hope.” Mothers detail the texts and the Skype calls. A few, only a few, say they get an occasional e-mail. Since Skype has video as well as voice, mothers say they can tell if their daughters are looking well. Everyone is vigilant, worried about swine flu. Several hate that their daughters can see them. The mothers are in their late forties through early sixties, and they are not all happy to be closely observed. “I stopped putting on makeup for Skype,” one says. “It was getting ridiculous.” Another insists that putting on makeup for Skype is important: “I want her to see me at my best, able to cope. I don’t want her to worry.”
There is wistfulness in the mothers’ accounts. For one, “It’s pretty much the old ‘news of the week in review,’ except it’s news of the day. But even with the constant updates, I don’t have much of a sense of what is really happening. How she really feels.” For another, “Texting makes it easy to lie. You never know where they really are. You never know if they are home. They can be anyplace and text you. Or Skype you on their iPhone. With a landline, you knew they were actually where they were supposed to be.” One mother shares my feeling that conversations on Skype are inexplicably superficial. Unlike me, she attributes it to the technical limitations of her Internet connection: “It’s like we are shouting at each other in order to be heard. The signal cuts off. I’m shouting at the computer.” And for this mother, things become even more superficial when she and her daughter exchange texts. She says, “I know that some people find it [texting] intimate, but it doesn’t seem like a place to get into a long story.” To this mother I admit that there is something about Skype that seems so ephemeral that I sometimes take “screenshots” of my daughter during our calls. On Skype you see each other, but you cannot make eye contact. I don’t like these screenshots. My daughter has the expression of someone alone. Of course, there is irony in my experience of the digital as ephemeral and in my self-indulgent moment as I imagine my daughter in forty years with no trace of our conversations. Because the digital is only ephemeral if you don’t take the trouble to make it permanent.
Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, was concerned about what would happen once the war was over and scientists could dedicate themselves to civilian life. He wasn’t worried about the biologists—they could always work on practical, medical problems—but the physicists needed new direction. In a landmark Atlantic Monthly article, “As We May Think,” Bush suggested one: the physicists should develop a “memex.” This would be “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” It would be, Bush wrote, an “intimate supplement to his memory.”1 Bush dreamed of scientists wearing glasses that could automatically record those things “worthy of the record.” He dreamed of annotating all that was captured. In his description of how an individual would make a path through all this data, Bush’s narrative captures the essence of a Web search.
In the late 1970s, computer scientist Steve Mann began recording his life in a very different spirit—as an act of resistance. In a world filled with surveillance cameras—on the street, in shopping malls, in banks—Mann wanted to turn cameras against the world. To pursue his project, Mann found a way to wear a computer, keyboard, screen, and radio transmitter on his body. He captured his life and posted it on the Web.2
Mann’s work was part performance art, part engineering research, and part political statement. Now, his once subversive gesture—documenting a life and putting it on the Web—is almost within everyone’s reach. These days, anyone with a smartphone (equipped with a camera and/or video recorder) is close to having a portable archivist. And indeed, many say that when they don’t use their mobile phone to document their lives, they feel remiss, guilty for not doing so.
In the mid-1990s, computer pioneer Gordon Bell began a project that would lead him to create a complete life archive. His first steps were to scan books, cards, letters, memos, posters, photographs, and even the logos from his coffee mug and T-shirt collections. Then, he moved on to digitizing home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings. Of course, Bell archived everything he had ever written or read on his computer, from personal e-mails to academic papers. Faced with the question of how to organize and retrieve this data, Bell began to work with his Microsoft colleague Jim Gemmell, and the MyLifeBits project was born. As the system went live, Bell wore voice-recording equipment and a camera programmed to take a new photograph when it sensed (by a change of ambient light) that Bell was with a new person or in a new setting.3 MyLifeBits recorded Bell’s telephone calls, the songs he listened to, and the programs he watched on radio and television. When Bell was at the computer, it recorded the Web pages he visited, the files he opened, the messages he sent and received. It even monitored which windows were in the foreground of his screen at any time and how much mouse and keyboard activity was going on.
Life capture has practical applications. Bell’s physician, for example, now has access to a detailed, ongoing record of his patient’s life. If Bell doesn’t exercise or eats fatty foods, the system knows. But Bell’s mind is on posterity. For him, MyLifeBits is a way for people to “tell their life stories to their descendants.”4 His program aspires to be the ultimate tool for life collection.5 But what of recollection in the fully archived life? If technology remembers for us, will we remember less? Will we approach our own lives from a greater distance? Bell talks about how satisfying it is to “get rid” of memories, to get them into the computer. Speaking of photography, Susan Sontag writes that under its influence, “travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”6 In digital culture, does life become a strategy for establishing an archive?7 Young people shape their lives to produce an impressive Facebook profile. When we know that everything in our lives is captured, will we begin to live the life that we hope to have archived?
For Bell, a life archive responds to the human desire for a kind of immortality, the ancient fantasy of cheating death. But the experience of building the archive may subvert such intent. We may end up with a life deferred by the business of its own collection. One of life’s pleasures is remembering, the good and the bad. Will the fact of the archive convince us that the work of remembering is already done?
When I go to San Francisco to talk with Bell and Gemmell in the summer of 2008, the formal MyLifeBits project is winding down; Bell wears only bits and pieces of his gear to our interview. He turns on a tape recorder. He takes my picture. He has wearied of his hardware. But the two scientists assure me—and I think they have a point—that total recall will be more popular when the technology for documenting your life is less burdensome. In the future there will be no fiddling with cameras and adjusting sound levels. You will be able to wear audio and video recording devices as tiny bits of diamondlike jewelry or, ultimately, as implants.
I am moved by my day with Gordon Bell. We look at his photographs, archived in complex patterns that make it possible to retrieve them by date, subject, and who is in the picture. We look at e-mail archives that span a professional lifetime. But the irony of the visit is that we spend most of our time talking about physical objects: we both love beautiful notebooks, and Bell shows me his Japanese-made journals filled with his elegant sketches of computer circuitry. We talk of physical objects that Bell has saved, things that belonged to his father. At one point, Bell brings out his MIT dissertation written over fifty years ago. It is hand typed. It has the “blueprints” of the circuits he devised—literally, diagrams etched on blue paper. We both touch them with a kind of awe. Now the computer generates such diagrams. But Bell touches the prints with the reverence with which I handle my mother’s letters. We are not so ready to let all of this go.
Bell remains an enthusiast of life archiving but admits that it may be having unintended effects. For one thing, he suspects his project may be changing the nature of his memory.8 Bell describes a lack of curiosity about details of life that he can easily find in his life archive. And he focuses on what the archive makes easily available. So, for example, Bell is mesmerized by a screen saver that draws on his personal archive to display random snapshots. Pictures of long-ago birthdays and family trips trigger waves of nostalgia. But during my visit, Bell tries to use search tools to find a particular photograph that is not coming up on the screen. He pursues one strategy, then another. Nothing works; he loses interest. One senses a new dynamic: when you depend on the computer to remember the past, you focus on whatever past is kept on the computer. And you learn to favor whatever past is easiest to find. My screen saver, my life.
And there are other effects. Bell says he can no longer abide books. He will get one, look at it, but “then I give them away, because they’re not in my [computer’s] memory. To me they’re almost gone.”9 Journalist Clive Thompson, another of Bell’s visitors, reflects on this aspect of Bell’s experiment. Thompson says, “If it’s not in your database, it doesn’t exist. That’s the sort of eerie philosophical proposition Bell’s project raises.”10
The proposition may not be so philosophical. To a certain degree, we already live it. Consider Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day in 2009. Arms are held high; cell phones glint in the sun. People are taking pictures of themselves, of strangers, of friends, of the JumboTron plasma screens that will broadcast the ceremony. The event is a celebration of physical presence, but the crowd reaches out to those who are absent. It is important to have images of the day on one’s own phone. And it is important to send them along. A photo from the inauguration, or a text, a posting, an e-mail, a Tweet—all validate the sense of being there. It used to be that taking a photograph marked participation—think of all the tourists who wanted to take their own photographs of the Mona Lisa as well as photograph themselves with the painting. But these days, the photograph is not enough. Sending implies being. On the inaugural platform, invited guests have cell phones and cameras raised high. The notables who constitute the picture take their own pictures. We are all pressed into the service of technologies of remembrance and validation.11 As I write in January 2010, a new issue of The New Yorker shows a man and woman at the summit of a ski slope. He is using his digital camera; she is on her cell phone.
COLLECTION AND RECOLLECTION
When I learn about how MyLifeBits software will use face-recognition technology to label photographs automatically, I recall childhood times with my mother when she wrote funny things, silly poems, or sentimental inscriptions on the back of family photographs. She liked putting them all together in a big drawer, so that, in a way, picking a photo out of the drawer was like finding a surprise. Moments around the photograph drawer were times of recollection, in laughter and sometimes regret. Bell and Gemmell see photograph labeling as a “pesky” technical problem, something that computers must learn to do. They sum up the issue of labeling by saying that people “don’t want to be the librarians of our digital archives—we want the computer to be the librarian.”12 Subtly, attitudes toward one’s own life shift. My mother, happily annotating her drawer of snapshots, never saw herself as a librarian.
Bell says that “offloading memories” onto a computer “gives you kind of a feeling of cleanliness.” Clean of remembrance? Clean of messy, unreliable associations? Do we want to be “clean” in this way?13 Marcel Proust mined and reworked his memories—the things that were clear and the things that he felt slipping away—to create Remembrance of Things Past. But one never thinks of Proust getting “rid” of memory as he labored in his cork-lined room. For Sigmund Freud, we understand what things mean by what we forget as well as what we remember. Forgetting is motivated; it offers clues about who we are. What Proust struggled to remember is more important than what came easily to him. He found himself in the memories wrenched from the shadows. Artificial remembrance will be the great leveler.
At Microsoft, computer scientist Eric Horvitz is in charge of a project—Life Browser—designed to make MyLifeBits data more user-friendly by giving it shape and pattern. Installed on your computer, Life Browser observes what you attend to—the files you open, the e-mails you answer, the Web searches you return to. It shows who you are based on what you do. You can intervene: for example, you can manually tag as most important, things you do less often. You can say that infrequent calls are to the most important people. But Life Browser will keep coming back at you with what your actual behavior says about your priorities. To demonstrate the program Horvitz tells it, “Go to July Fourth.” Life Browser complies with photographs of parades and cookouts. Horvitz says of the program, “It comes to understand your mind, how you organize your memories, by what you choose. It learns to become like you, to help you be a better you.”14
I think of my mother’s photograph drawer, intentionally kept messy. Her Life Browser would have reflected disorder and contradiction, for every time she chose a photograph, she told a different story. Some were true, and some only bore the truth of wishes. Understanding these wishes made my time at the photograph drawer precious to me. In contrast, Gemmell imagines how Life Browser and its artificially intelligent descendants will relieve him of the burden of personal narration: “My dream is I go on vacation and take my pictures and come home and tell the computer, ‘Go blog it,’ so that my mother can see it. I don’t have to do anything; the story is there in the pattern of the images.”15
Don, twenty-one, a civil engineering student at a West Coast university, wants a life archive. He shoots photographs with his iPhone and uploads them to the Web every night, often a hundred a day. He says that his friends want to see everything he does, so “I put my life on Facebook. I don’t like to make choices [among the photographs]. My friends can choose. I just like to have it all up there.” There is nothing deliberate in Don’s behavior except for its first premise: shoot as much of your life as possible and put it on the Web. Don is confident that “a picture of my life will emerge from, well, all the pictures of my life.”
Don hasn’t heard of Life Browser but has confidence that it is only a matter of time before he will have access to an artificial intelligence that will be able to see his life “objectively.” He welcomes the idea of the documented life, organized by algorithm. The imperfect Facebook archive is only a first step. Rhonda, twenty-six, also uses Facebook to record her life. Her experience is more labored. “Taking and uploading photographs,” she says, “feels like a requirement.” Rhonda wants to save things on the computer because of a desire to remember (“I’ll know exactly what I did”) and to forget (“It’s all there if I ever need to remember something. If I put it on the computer, I don’t have to think about it anymore”). This is what Gordon Bell calls “clean living”—but with a difference. In Bell’s utopian picture, after the saving comes the sifting and savoring. For Rhonda, the practice of saving is an end in itself. Don and Rhonda suggest a world in which technology determines what we remember of the story of our lives. Observing software “learns” our “favorites” to customize what it is important to remember. Swaddled in our favorites, we miss out on what was in our peripheral vision.
The memex and MyLifeBits both grew out of the idea that technology has developed capacities that should be put to use. There is an implied compact with technology in which we agree not to waste its potential. Kevin Kelly re-frames this understanding in language that gives technology even greater volition: as technology develops, it shows us what it “wants.” To live peacefully with technology, we must do our best to accommodate these wants. By this logic, it would seem that right now, one of the things technology “wants” to do is ponder our memories.
A LETTER HOME
I begin drafting this chapter in the late summer of 2009. After a few weeks, my work is interrupted by the Jewish high holy days. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a special service of mourning for the dead. This is Yiskor. Different synagogues have different practices. In mine, the rabbi delivers a sermon just before the service. This year, his comments bring me up short. Things that had seemed complicated now seem clear. The rabbi addresses the importance of talking to the dead. His premise is that we want to, need to, talk to the dead. It is an important, not a maudlin, thing to do. The rabbi suggests that we have four things to say to them: I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you. This is what makes us human, over time, over distance.
When my daughter and I have our first conversation on Skype (Dublin/Boston), I’m in the midst of reviewing my materials on Gordon Bell and the MyLifeBits program. I tell Rebecca I’m writing about the possibility of being able to archive everything we do. I ask her if she would like to have a record of all of her communications during her time in Dublin: e-mails, texts, instant messages, Facebook communications, calls, conversations, searches, pictures of everyone she has met and all the travelling she has done. She thinks about it. After a silence, she finally says, “Well, that’s a little pack ratty, creepy.” When people are pack rats, the volume of things tends to mean that equal weight is given to every person, conversation, and change of venue. More appealing to her are human acts of remembrance that filter and exclude, that put events into shifting camps of meaning—a scrapbook, a journal. And perhaps, at eighteen, she senses that, for her, archiving might get in the way of living. To live most fully, perhaps we need at least the fiction that we are not archiving. For surely, in the archived life, we begin to live for the record, for how we shall be seen.
As Rebecca and I talk about what has weight for her in her year abroad, I tell her that, prompted by her absence, I have been looking over my freshman-year correspondence with my mother. I ask my daughter if she would like to write me a letter. Since she already sends me regular text messages and we’re now on Skype talking about what shoes she should wear to the “Back to the Future” Ball at her Dublin College, she has a genuine moment of puzzlement and says, “I don’t know what my subject could be.” I appreciate that with the amount of communication we have, it could well seem that all topics have been exhausted. Nevertheless, I say something like, “You could write about your thoughts about being in Ireland, how you feel about it. Things that would mean special things to me.” Over time, over distance, through the fishbowl of Skype, Rebecca stares at me from her dorm room and repeats, “Maybe if I could find a subject.”
As I talk to Rebecca about the pleasures of my correspondence with my mother, she comments sensibly, “So send me a letter.” And so I have.