Island of the Crackberry Readers

lotuseaters.jpgSherry Turkle is an MIT scholar who’s written some fascinating reflections on how humans relate to computers. As director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT, she’s been pretty enthusiastic about artificial intelligence (AI) and machines that (appear to) think. But she’s started to question the acceleration of these developments recently…in ways that might intrigue lawyers and just about anyone in technology-intensive industries.

Turkle’s research began as she watched children and the elderly interact with more and more sophisticated simulacra of animals:

Children approach a Furby or a My Real Baby and explore what it means to think of these creatures as alive or “sort of alive”; elders in a nursing play with the robot Paro and grapple with how to characterize this creature that presents

itself as a baby seal. They move from inquiries such as “Does it swim?” and “Does it eat?” to “Is it alive?” and “Can it love?”

As any fan of the movie AI knows, these are profound issues in themselves. Turkle worries about a society where children no longer appreciate the difference between the born and the made….and busy adults leave their aging parents with an array of sophisticated toys to entertain them, rather than visiting.

But Turkle’s latest work broadens this concern to the array of technological devices that are becoming indispensable to urban professionals. Have you ever been left “holding the bag” as a friend rifles through email messages or texts someone? If manners are “small morals,” such activities actually represent a shift in our moral lives–toward an intense connection with a cybernetwork, and away from the presence of those around us. The devices become an excuse for constant distraction. Even more importantly, we can get on a “positional treadmill” such that a device like the BlackBerry is less a form of advantage than a necessity to avoid falling behind.

Recalling Borsook’s book Cyberselfish, Turkle argues that these devices create a “new narcissism”–not mere self-concern, but narcissism in the technical sense, of persons who are so fragile they are in constant need of being “shored up.”

She sees the new technologies of connection and robotics as not merely instrumental, but constitutive, of our ends–we don’t merely use them, but they change how we think and reinforce certain character traits.

When devices like the iPhone are heralded as life changing, and our new Cartesian motto is “iPod therefore I am,” we may well be participating in a tech culture that simultaneously enables “social networking” and displaces real world friendships. This is a theme of Richard Powers’s brilliant The Echomaker, where he describes the internet in a fictionalized Kearney, Nebraska as basically decimating old patterns of social life there.

So what to do? I have no easy answers now, but I hope to think more about “virtuality and its discontents” here. Perhaps work like Turkle’s cautions us against a world where “self-expression becomes more important than social action.” And as we shape law’s treatment of friendship, and virtual worlds, we should think about how technology tethers us in certain ways even as it frees us in others.

Photo Explanation: Clarkson Stanfield, Illustration for Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters, a nod to the inspiration for the post title.

PS: Many of the ideas above were in an address by Turkle in New York last month. Download the podcast from the New York Academy of Sciences here or here (for the full talk).

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