Bill Moyers: Technology Is Turning Society into Something We Experience Alone, Together


If you think a lot of people are looking down these days, it’s because they are. We often see people focused so intensely on the latest text or tweet coming from their smartphone, that they seem virtually oblivious to the world around them. This week, Bill talks to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who has studied our relationship with technology for over three decades, about what this constant engagement means for our culture and our society. Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, says our devices are not only changing the way we communicate and interact with each other, but also who we are as human beings. “What concerns me as a developmental psychologist is watching children grow in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment,” Turkle tells Moyers. “Everyone is always having their attention divided between the world of people [they're] with and this ‘other’ reality.”

Full transcript below the video: 

BILL MOYERS: Enough of politics, the debt and that spectacle in Washington. Let’s change the subject.

If you’ve ever lost your smartphone, as I have, you know it can feel like a death. The experience highlights just how our world has been engulfed by social media and how our technology has become a vital organ of our being.

And it's happened so fast. Facebook is not quite 10 years old, Twitter is younger still. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told a reporter that in 2016 -- just three years from now -- “people are going to be sharing eight to ten times as much stuff.”

Like anything hurtling us forward at breakneck speed, the advancements are great, and so are the dangers. For every Arab Spring or political movement using social media to foment change, there may also be campaigns of abuse and hate. For every Wikileak and revealed secret, there’s the encroachment on personal privacy by the NSA. For every new friend meeting through cyberspace, there’s the risk of estrangement from the real world.

Our devices change not only what we do but also who we are. So I’ve come to Sherry Turkle to try to explain how and why. She’s a clinical psychologist who was one of the first to study the impact of computers on culture and society.

A professor at MIT and Director of that school’s Initiative on Technology and Self, she’s written several important books based on deep research and hundreds of interviews with children and adults alike. Her most recent sums up her conclusions: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

BILL MOYERS: Sherry Turkle, welcome.

SHERRY TURKLE: Pleasure to be here.

BILL MOYERS: I saw a video the other day that I want to share with you. It's now been seen 25 million times –


BILL MOYERS: --on YouTube. Here it is.

WOMAN #1 in I Forgot My Phone: …This guy…I’m not, I’m not…

WOMAN #2 in I Forgot My Phone: Wow.

WOMAN #1 in I Forgot My Phone: …But like if you…it’s not – it’s not real –

MAN in I Forgot My Phone: I don’t think it’s real. I don’t think it’s real.

WOMAN #2 in I Forgot My Phone: Maybe there’s a –

WOMAN #1 in I Forgot My Phone: Did you guys see the lineup for cars …wasted … the Empire State Building is like, really close to it.

BILL MOYERS: What are you thinking as you look at that?

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I call it "alone together." That we're moving to a space where we feel free to respond to the three promises that technology now makes us, that we can always be heard, that we can be wherever we want to be, and that we never have to be alone.

And that third promise actually is terribly important because I believe that the capacity for solitude is terribly important to develop. I even believe that if you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely. And by not developing this capacity for solitude, we're not doing our children a favor.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, there are many things that we're doing that are having bad effects on our kids because we're really not looking at the implications of immersing ourselves in mobile technology to the degree that we have. And what it's doing to, not just our children, but to our family lives, to our social life, to our political life. I’ll give you a good example.

BILL MOYERS: All right.

SHERRY TURKLE: John McCain recently, under the pressure of the discussion of the Syrian crisis, said that was boring. And he needed to go to something that was more stimulating. And so he went to a game. And what that showed is that what we're going to is something that revs us up and puts us, we know, neurochemically in a state where we're less able to come back and be part of the give and take of human conversation.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, isn't every media revolution greeted with the kinds of concerns we've been expressing? Haven't we adults all through history always said that this is how the--

SHERRY TURKLE: "This is a terrible one," right.


SHERRY TURKLE: I face this question every day, of: I welcome the internet, I welcome the mobile technology. I'm saying there are certain ways we're using it that are not taking account of how misusing it, overusing it, can really threaten things that we care about.

It's a question of technological affordance and human vulnerability. This is a technology to which we are particularly vulnerable in certain ways. A mother adores being with her children.

And yet with this technology, she is so vulnerable to the stimulation of knowing what the next message is on her cell phone, that when she picks her kid up at school and the kid comes into the car, this is the gesture she makes to her child. "Let me just finish this one last email. Let me just get this one message."

And does not make eye contact with the child as the child comes in. It's the desire to look at that one last message that causes her to go like that to her child. Now that's not saying there's anything wrong with a cell phone. It's saying that we are so vulnerable to the seduction of who wants to reach us, what sweetness is coming through the phone, that we're really at a point where we turn away from our kids.

BILL MOYERS: So what sweetness is that attractive?

SHERRY TURKLE: The sweetness of something new that's coming into us on our phone. People talk to me about, you know, not being able to tolerate not knowing what that new thing that's coming in on the phone is. I mean, kids sit in class now and they, you know, the phone is in the bag or the phone is on the floor, and they check regularly what new texts are coming in.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have boundaries for them--

SHERRY TURKLE: Every professor--

BILL MOYERS: Do you push back?

SHERRY TURKLE: Every professor knows this. Well, I had a thing in class where the kids, I was teaching a class on memoir at MIT, and it was about these kids' fantastic stories about their lives. And a group of the class came to me and said, "You know, we're texting in class. And, you know, we feel bad because the rest of the kids, I mean, they're talking about their lives." And I said, "Well, we have to discuss this as a class." And basically, they said, "We are not as strong as technology's pull."

BILL MOYERS: What did they mean by that?

SHERRY TURKLE: They were not as strong.

BILL MOYERS: They couldn't say no?

SHERRY TURKLE: They could not say no. They could not say no to the feeling that somebody wanted them. Somebody was reaching out to them. The neurochemical hit of constant connection is what we are -- is what we have now.

BILL MOYERS: The multitasking?

SHERRY TURKLE: It is -- we definitely get a high from multitasking.

BILL MOYERS: Are our brains programmed to do four to six things at the same time?

SHERRY TURKLE: No. There's really no such thing as multitasking. Studies show decisively that your behavior, your performance degrades for every new task you multitask.

So when you add a new task, your performance degrades in all of the tasks you're doing. But there's a catch. You think you're doing better in each of the tasks you're doing. So multitasking, which we hyped and hyped as kind of-- this is what this technology allowed for us, is actually the first thing that we need to address in order to do serious work.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you have helped me to understand a puzzle because in your earlier book, “Life on the Screen,” you were optimistic. You thought all of this technology was truly promising.

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I mean, I've had an evolution in my thinking.

BILL MOYERS: And what was the critical factor in that?

SHERRY TURKLE: Because in the early days of the internet, people went online, in those days anonymously, and could create identities online that were very different from the identities they had in the real.

And people were experimenting with gender with, you know, the shy would be less shy, and people, as I studied them online, were really using online identity to work through questions of kind of experimenting using the online world as a sort of identity workshop to play with questions of kind of experimenting, using the online world as a sort of identity workshop, to play with questions of who they were and to experiment with being a little bit different. And I thought that was very exciting.

What I did not see, call me not prescient, was that my idea of how we would be thinking about identity had a model of a person at a computer playing with identity, and then after you played with your identity at the computer, then you would get up from your computer, having experimented with identity, and you would go out to the world, into the world, and you would live your life having learned these lessons from your online identity. When the book was written, I looked around me, and there were already people in my environment using computers that they called the "wearable computers."

BILL MOYERS: Wearable?

SHERRY TURKLE: Wearable computers. They had antennae, they had keyboards in their pockets, they had glasses that were their screens, and they were wearing the web on them. In other words, they looked very science fiction. They basically had a portable phone. They were-- they could be--

BILL MOYERS: You were wearing it?

SHERRY TURKLE: --on the web, they were wearing it. They could be on the web all the time.

BILL MOYERS: It was their uniform.

SHERRY TURKLE: It was their uniform. They could be on the web all the time. And that meant once you had this device with you all the time, you didn't have this division of time at the computer or not with the computer. You had this always on, always-on-you device, and you had the possibility of being always, always in this world of the web.

BILL MOYERS: But what's wrong with that? I ask that seriously because, you know--

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, that is--

BILL MOYERS: --E. M. Forster said, "Only connect."

SHERRY TURKLE: That changed everything. Because people then, the kids in my class who were looking down at their phones through the entire lecture included, the people in church who text during services, who text during funerals included, everyone is always having their attention divided between the world of the people we're with and this other reality.

We now walk around with our heads down. I walked over here this morning, everybody is like this. I--

BILL MOYERS: That's dangerous in New York City--

SHERRY TURKLE: It's dangerous. There's even a New Yorker cover I think about a family, you know, who are at the beach, and their heads are in their phones. I mean, we are always equally in the world of the machine, in the world that's in the phone and in the rest of the world.

BILL MOYERS: That New Yorker cover's a long way from the covers we used to see on "The Saturday Evening Post," particularly in Norman Rockwell's famous depiction of Thanksgiving dinner around the table, serving the turkey with all the kids and grandparents entering into the conversation--

SHERRY TURKLE: Right, right. If I came into this conversation and just put my iPhone down and we started to talk, what we would discuss in this conversation would radically change.

Because you’d feel, and you'd be right to feel, that I'm, you know, partly waiting to be interrupted by all the things people, experiences, emotions, connections that are here. And that changes what people will talk about, the amount of investment they'll make in the conversation, the nature of the degree of emotional content they will put into a conversation.

BILL MOYERS: What is this doing to us as human beings? The fact that we're constantly at--

SHERRY TURKLE: It's keeping us more at the surface of things. I went to a dinner of a group of young people, constant, constant interruption. Everybody has a phone, phones are going off constantly, the average teenage girl is interrupted once every four or five minutes by an incoming or an outgoing text.

So five people out to dinner, I mean, it was a constant interruption. And I'll say to them, "How do you feel about the interruptions?" And they say, "What interruptions?" Because they experience these interruptions as connection.

Things have gotten so bad that the culture is starting to present things that used to be dystopian as utopian. And my best example is dinner. There's an ad for Facebook which-- a dinner, a typical Norman Rockwell dinner, the type you were evoking.

Big family, and extended family is at dinner. And you know this is going to be good, because dinner is the thing that we all know protects against juvenile delinquency, people stay in school if they have dinner with their families. It protects against, you know, everything bad and it encourages everything good in the growing up as a child.

BILL MOYERS: There are studies that confirm that?

SHERRY TURKLE: Studies confirm dinner with your family, just have dinner with your children. So we know this is going to be good. And this family is having dinner. And then all of a sudden, one of the members of the family, let's call her "Aunty," starts to get boring. A young girl, let's say a 19-year-old girl -- we’ve hit a "boring bit." And this girl is not going to take a "boring bit." And she takes out her phone, and on her phone she goes to Facebook. And from her phone comes out snowball fights and football games and ballet things, all the things that are on her phone come out of her phone.

And she's not at the dinner anymore. She's into this other world of Facebook, all the "boring bits" are gone, Facebook and all the things that are on her Facebook are now at the dinner, on the table. She's surrounded by this other world. She's smiling, she's happy. And so, I mean, essentially Facebook has taken out an ad against conversation at family dinner.

The big issue is whether or not we're moving to a culture, and we are, where people can no longer tolerate what I'm calling the "boring bits.

BILL MOYERS: The boring --

SHERRY TURKLE: The “boring bits" of human conversation. I call it a "flight from conversation." Because we've become increasingly intolerant of the way in which we stumble and make mistakes and kind of have to backtrack, particularly when we're talking about things that are complicated and hard. And you have to sort of work with somebody and get -- this is conversation.

And children have to be taught, and this is why it's a gift to them to say, "Put down the device and let's talk." And so what concerns me as a developmental psychologist, watching children grow in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment. You can always go someplace where you're stimulated, stimulated, stimulated, is that people are losing that capacity. And that's very serious.

BILL MOYERS: What is it about face-to-face conversation you think people don't like?

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I once asked a 16-year-old who was talking about how much he doesn't like conversation. He actually had just said to me, "Someday, someday soon, but certainly not how, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation." And I said, "What's wrong with conversation?" And he said, "It takes place in real time and you can't control what you're going to say."

And this is crucial for what digital technology has given us that has made conversation seem like something that we can avoid. Let's say the old kind of conversation, which is open-ended, which is that when you type or use digital media, you can edit, you can correct, you can get it right, you feel less vulnerable. I call it the "Goldilocks Effect."

BILL MOYERS: Goldilocks?

SHERRY TURKLE: The "Goldilocks Effect--"

BILL MOYERS: Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

SHERRY TURKLE: Right. We want to be in touch with more and more people, carefully kept at bay. Not too close, not too far, just right, edited, made -- with our communications edited, made perfect. Goldilocks.

BILL MOYERS: Everyone across the spectrum is talking about technology overuse, including comedians. I came across this moment on YouTube where Louis C.K. is talking about his own kid. Here it is.

LOUIS C.K.: My daughter was having a dance thing at her school. They had this big dance. Anyway, we all went, all the parents, and everybody's there, and everybody's got their phone. Every single parent, it was an amazing thing to watch, because kids are dancing, and every parent is standing there like this. Every single person was blocking their vision of their actual child with their phone.

And the kids, I went over by the stage and the kids, there's people holding iPads in front of their faces. Why are you taping this? You’re never going to watch it. You don’t watch it, you just put it on Facebook, “Here, you watch it.”

BILL MOYERS: It's a funny video, but he isn't sure he likes what's happening.

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I mean, it -- I mean, there's so many things going on in this. I mean, we are living the kind of mediated, a mediated existence where, you know, capturing the event in order to then post it, really has become, has come to seem normal.

So I call it, "I share therefore I am." I mean, it's kind of a way of living where you don't feel fully as though you're living if you haven't shared it in this new way.

In other words, it's almost as though you don't have the feeling, or the feeling is -- you get the feeling, or the feeling begins to come to you. You feel more yourself, you begin to feel yourself as you mesh yourself with the means of communication.

BILL MOYERS: So sending is being?

SHERRY TURKLE: Sending is being. It's starting to be that sending is being. And I think that this has a, potentially a downside, because, you know, you begin to not have as much a feeling of autonomy and sense of self if your way of thinking about yourself is so tied into sharing and texting and being enmeshed that way.

BILL MOYERS: Walt Whitman should be around now, Song of Myself--

SHERRY TURKLE: Right, right.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, that's what society--

SHERRY TURKLE: No, it really is a different way of seeing the self. And again, I come back to the importance of solitude, the sense that people need to learn how to gather themselves and be alone and experience solitude, which is different from loneliness. Because the way things are now, you know, people think that loneliness is a problem that needs to be solved and that only technology can solve.

BILL MOYERS: What about technology's ability to enable us to be mean and malicious from a distance without any possibility of retaliation? Why do people behave so differently on social media?

SHERRY TURKLE: Because the face, the presence of another person inhibits the worst in us. And the fact that we can behave as behind a veil brings out this side where you feel as though you're disinhibited.  ... You're given permission. You're given permission. People behave -- cyber bullying, people behave as though they're not speaking to another human being.

BILL MOYERS: Did you see the recent story about the 12-year-old girl who took her life after being bullying--


BILL MOYERS: Any take you can give us on that? Any insight you can share with us about how technology feeds something like that? She could've just turned off the phone, put down the phone.

SHERRY TURKLE: No. No, she couldn't. Because the phone has become her lifeline too, to her social world. I think that's sort of what we're saying, is that being part of her social world meant keeping on the phone. These people got to her because she could not be part of being 12 years old in her high school.

BILL MOYERS: You're so on that--

SHERRY TURKLE: Without keeping on her phone.

BILL MOYERS: There was a recent Pew research study that found teenagers are wary of excessive sharing on Facebook but continue to use it because they say it is crucial to their social life.

SHERRY TURKLE: Absolutely, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: So it's not just the matter of unplugging. If they unplug, they're unplugging from their universe.

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes. And there are many teenagers who I've studied who will unplug for a while, and then plug back in because that is where -- that is sort of where their social life is. That's where their -- that's where they know where the parties are. That's where they know, that's where they find out where things are happening.

BILL MOYERS: So this need for community that they now find technologically seems to me an extension of this powerful appetite that makes us human beings. But you say, I hear you saying, the machine threatens our humanity?

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I want to say I'm optimistic if it can be used in a way that connects us in ways that will make us more human, as that will bring the human community together. But let me just take politics. I was so optimistic and excited about the connections that people could form politically using the computer.

And there has been some fantastic things, obviously. But very often, people feel as though they've politically participated if they go on a website and they check "like." They feel that that is belonging to a -- making a political statement.

Politics is actually, I think, going into your community, having a conversation, not to overuse the word, disagreeing with somebody, putting yourself into somebody else's head, often very hard,

Looking somebody in the eye, really doing the hard work of empathy, something that you don't learn by email. It's the last place to develop empathic skills. So the question of community and being part of a community is either something that computers can help or that computation can undermine, depending on how we use it.

BILL MOYERS: Have you found that people feel empowered when they can tweet or Facebook their opinions? I’ve found that there's a sense of response people get to their postings of their opinions that make them feel better.


BILL MOYERS: That they're being heard.

SHERRY TURKLE: The feeling of always being heard is great and empowering, but again, the paradox, it can take people away from really doing something, from real action.

I call this "moments of more and lives of less." In other words, you have these moments when you feel as though you're doing more, and you feel empowered, but actually, you haven't engaged with the world. So you feel great, you've tweeted an opinion, you feel, "I'm in the world," but actually, joining a political group, learning something, taking some kind of action in the world, in the real world on the street in your community, would actually be a moment of more.

BILL MOYERS: But that requires negotiation, compromise, even vulnerability.

SHERRY TURKLE: And conversation with other people. That you can't do it from your room, which so much of the internet allows you to do. I mean, in education and in politics, I think we want to go to a place where we're looking to give things the complexity that they deserve.

BILL MOYERS: But many elite institutions are pressing the case for online education.

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes. And this is something that I think is very, very interesting now. It's good for certain kinds of content. It's good for places that couldn't possibly get this education. But I think that the great education happens when there's really a conversation that mixes content, the passion of the instructor, and the conversation with a student who's physically there with the instructor.

As a professor, the teaching of the content happens through the weaving of my passion for my subject with delivering the content. I don't want them to come in for a discussion after they've been alone in their room learning this stuff. I want to be with them while they're learning.

SHERRY TURKLE: So I'm willing to go along with this, if this is for people who don't have access to the ideal. And this is the best they can have. But in technology so often, we use the argument that there's something that's better than nothing. And in all of a sudden, it becomes better than anything. So this thing, this online education, starts out that it's better than nothing, because all these people in third-world, this is the only thing they can have. So it’s better than nothing.

And then all of a sudden, it's better than anything. It's better than anything MIT can provide for our own students, and it begins to creep in. I mean, sell it to other universities in the United States because it's better than what they can provide.

And all of a sudden, it starts to be a model for education. And that's when I think we need to sort of take a breath. My attitude toward so much about technology is really just take a breath and just approach it and say, "Do you really want to say that flipping the classroom is really the best model for everything we're doing?" I'm not so sure.

BILL MOYERS: So do you have a couple of practical things that you would suggest to people about how to use this technology? Facebook, Twitter, social media, for happiness and meaning?

SHERRY TURKLE: I have a lot of practical advice for parents, which is to create sacred spaces in your home.

BILL MOYERS: By which you mean.

SHERRY TURKLE: Places that are device free. Kitchen, dining room, and the car. You can't introduce this idea when your child is 15 that the car is for chatting. From the very beginning, kitchen, dining room, and the car are places where we talk.

And you explain to your child. "This isn't, you know, this is important to me. We're a family. I need to talk to you. I need to talk to you."

BILL MOYERS: Sherry Turkle, I appreciate your coming to share your ideas with us.


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