perils of digital technology

I just finished listening to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who kicked off Calvin’s acclaimed January Series with a lecture on technology (other speakers over the next three weeks include Eric Metaxas, David Gergen, Michael Gerson, and N.T. Wright). You can listen to most lectures live online for free (some may also be available online after the fact).

Turkle made several interesting points which I share below (to better process my own notes and in case they spark something in you). These points are probably spelled out further in her book, Alone Together.

1. Technology enables us to become distracted from the things we say we care about. We are so busy communicating that we fail to connect with others. We are so busy communicating that we fail to think.

2. Technology dials down human contact. People tend to prefer email or texts rather than phone calls because the former enables us to hide from each other. We fear that we may share too much in the immediacy of a phone call. So besides the convenience of wanting to not be interrupted and to respond on our own schedule, we like online communication because we can share only the parts we want.

3. Because technology pressures us to respond immediately, we begin to ask each other simpler questions that can be answered easily. And so technology tends to dumb down our conversations.

4. Technology encourages the sensibility where the validation of a feeling supports the establishment of a feeling. It’s almost as if we don’t really feel our feeling until our friends validate it. Turkle called his phenomonen, “I share, therefore I am.” We behave like adolescents who use others to validate and so establish our feelings.

5. We must teach our children to be alone, or they will only ever know how to be lonely.

6. The schools of the future will not focus so much on collaboration but on teaching students how to be alone. We are too afraid of solitude, but this is the very thing we need for creativity. Teachers must show students how to slow things down, to tolerate the anxiety of being left with their own company long enough to have new thoughts. It’s not good for students to always reach out and touch each other—they need to learn how to work alone.

7. People who must constantly check their phone for new messages say that their mobile device feels like a place of hope. They desperately want the message they find there to make their lives interesting.

[My aside:  this reminds me of what the medieval Christians called sloth. Sloth (acedia) is the sin of distraction, which is rooted in despair. Is it a coincidence that our Age of Distraction is also an Age of Despair?]

8. The normal solution for an addiction is to quit cold turkey. But technology addicts realize that will never happen, as they need their technology to get by in the world. So they feel a sense of hopelessness about ever kicking their addiction.

9. We’re not in trouble because we invented a new technology, we’re in trouble because we unreflectively threw ourselves into the new technology.

10. The Internet never forgets. Delete and Erase are only metaphorical on the Web. Whatever you type or whatever sites you visit will be on your permanent record. And so we become the instruments of our own surveillance.

11. Mark Zuckerberg declared that privacy is no longer a relevant social norm. But what is intimacy and democracy without privacy? Can you be intimate with someone without privacy? Can you have a genuine democracy if individuals lack a zone of privacy—a place where they are allowed to have their own thoughts?

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28 Responses to perils of digital technology

  1. firechap31 says:

    A “friend of mine” has supervisors that use email to lead the organization. It’s come to be known as “Leadership by Email.” It makes for a very cold and unfriendly place to work with lots of miscommunication in the midst of all the communication.

  2. Philosophy is fun! BTW, you misspelled the word “delete.” Can’t take your high-falutin’ free-thinkin’ article too seriously when you can’t be bothered to run a basic spell-check.

  3. Tom Beetham says:

    Thanks Mike. These thoughts are very perceptive. There are benefits to modern technology in communication, but there seems to be so many negative side effects. I thought these points were very perceptive. A great book that I was put onto by Kevin DeYoung (I think) is called “Hamlet’s Blackberry”…helped me to think through how to utilize technology rather than be submerged by it… A fun and helpful read. It is by William Powers. Thanks for the post!

  4. Nate Archer says:

    Young people are growing up with a very strange view of privacy. It is an infringement on their right to privacy if mom or dad checks on their media usage, but on the other hand they will share personal and inappropriate information with the entire internet.

    Today’s ethos of privacy has us hidden from the people we should be open to, and open and exposed to those we shouldn’t.

  5. mikewittmer says:

    Thanks for the catch, Michael. I fixed it–the price of speed, I guess. And a proper example of the problems that technology creates. So don’t blame me, blame the urgency of writing a blog.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Tom. I look forward to reading it.

  6. Mike, You may find it a little ironic that my daughter has posted this to Facebook…. :>

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  8. Pingback: Perils of Digital Technology « gospeltechlife

  9. Ethan says:

    very interested in your comments esp regarding the medieval definition of sloth as distraction. could you point me to some medieval discussion fo this? i would love to read more on their perspective and prescriptions for this. thanks.

  10. Ethan says:

    Very interested in your comments esp regarding the medieval definition of sloth as distraction. could you point me to some medieval discussion of this? I would love to read more on their perspective and prescriptions for this. Thanks.

  11. Jonathan Shelley says:

    Mike,

    Just a little push back on some of Turkle’s points. It seems to me that points 2 and 3 are in conflict. According to point 2, we like electronic communication because it allows us to respond on our own schedule, but point 3 states that we are pressured to respond immediately. Is this dialectical communication? I would also add that I think the “dumbing down” of our communication is more directly related to the societal shift towards what Lewis called “men without chests.”

    Also, I disagree with point 4 that electronic communication encourages the “I share, therefore I am” mentality. Instead, I think that electronic communication encourages us to unreflectively share every random thought that pops into our heads. The time, energy, and financial resources necessary to Tweet like a twit are miniscule compared to what it would take to make a call, write a letter, or compose a reasoned argument for a position. I’ve come to understand that our thoughts are only as valuable as what it costs us to share them, and the Internet has eliminated the cost.

  12. mikewittmer says:

    Ethan:

    Look at William Willimon, “Sinning Like a Christian.” Hint: you can download it for free as an ebook from CU’s library.

    Jonathan:

    Tweeting like a twit is a good line. I think the point about 2 and 3 is that while we want to control when and where we reply, we also feel pressured to respond, so when we do reply we tend to keep it short. I have so much for I’d like to say but I won’t, for the reason I just gave.

  13. Ross says:

    Point 6, regarding solitude, is profound. My fear is that the teachers will not have any experience with real solitude and quiet. Most urbanites I know would go crazy if they were to experience several days of solitude. It is a major reason that I love the wilderness. Thank God I live in the interior of British Columbia (where it is getting increasingly difficult to find real solitude and quiet)!

  14. Can’t help but think of Pascal here.
    ““All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

  15. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (1/6) | Everyday Theology

  16. Jonathan Shelley says:

    Mike,

    Is the idea behind points 2 and 3 the tension of being caught between wanting to answer on one’s own schedule and the pressure to answer immediately? If so, that is certainly not new with electronic communication, but I think a case could be made that electronic communication can actually help alleviate some of the tension. For example, when my boss stops by my cubicle and asks me a tough question, if I can’t come up with an immediate answer I have to either research the answer or try to make something up. If he contacts me via IM or email, I have a few seconds to search for the right documentation or such before responding, taking some of the pressure off needing to know everything off the top of my head. The same is true of searching the Internet on my iPhone when the prof asks me a hard question!

  17. doniece says:

    I basically agree with Turkle – at least when it comes to people who have an existing network friends and family that they can connect with. But I believe that digital technology has enabled a host of lonely, isolated people to build meaningful relationships that they, otherwise, would not have.

  18. Ethan says:

    Thanks so much for the book recommend Mike. you hinted about a free ebook download from CU’s library. not sure which CU. (i grew up outside Boulder CO so CU only means one thing to me)

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  20. Tim says:

    Just fyi, you have some ‘free naughty android app’ advertised on your site, with pictures. I have the screenshot if you want it.

  21. Tim Webb says:

    Some of us choose not to be on Facebook… and we’ve learned that there is truth to the saying that “if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist.” Please bear that in mind with your not-connected friends…

  22. Pingback: Clearing the Noise « Kilcup

  23. mikewittmer says:

    Tim:

    I would like to see that. I didn’t even know I had advertising on my site (which shows how naive I am with technology).

    Ethan:

    Sorry, I mistook you for my student, Ethan. I meant Cornerstone University’s library–though other libraries may have it too.

  24. Dr. Wittmer, thank you for the time and care you put into this summary.

    When Turkle said “The schools of the future will not focus so much on collaboration but on teaching students how to be alone,” is this the result of a study, or her prescription for the problem, or wishful thinking?

    Your linkage between distraction and despair prompted me to write about it on Zondervan Blog: http://zndr.vn/AmzEkx. The tricky thing about distraction is, sometimes I seek it because I’m avoiding some depressing reality; other times I just need to refresh my exhausted brain with some kind of beauty.

    -Adam

  25. Jonathan Shelley, love your observation that “our thoughts are only as valuable as what it costs us to share them.” I wouldn’t say the Internet has totally “eliminated the cost,” but we can correlate the Internet with a few factors that could arguably devalue thought.

    An impromptu list I call *The Internet Feeds Me, Hear Me Roar* – constant hunger for the new, a global competitive arena for our thoughts, content inflation, content repetition, new standards for thought quality.

  26. Pingback: your brain on technology « Don’t Stop Believing «

  27. Pingback: Some downsides of technology « Strengthened by Grace

  28. Pingback: Disciples of Distraction: Reflecting on Technology, Hope and Despair | Zondervan Blog

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