Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Recorded atFebruary 29, 2012
Duration (min:sec)19:27
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute158.46 slow
Readability (FK)59.58 easy
SpeakerSherry Turkle
CountryUnited States of America
Occupationpsychologist, sociologist
DescriptionAmerican social scientist and psychologist

Official TED page for this talk


As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication -- and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:15 Just a moment ago,
200:17 my daughter Rebecca texted me for good luck.
300:21 Her text said,
400:23 "Mom, you will rock."
500:26 I love this.
600:28 Getting that text
700:30 was like getting a hug.
800:32 And so there you have it.
900:35 I embody
1000:37 the central paradox.
1100:39 I'm a woman
1200:41 who loves getting texts
1300:43 who's going to tell you
1400:45 that too many of them can be a problem.
1500:48 Actually that reminder of my daughter
1600:51 brings me to the beginning of my story.
1700:54 1996, when I gave my first TEDTalk,
1800:58 Rebecca was five years old
1901:00 and she was sitting right there
2001:02 in the front row.
2101:04 I had just written a book
2201:06 that celebrated our life on the internet
2301:08 and I was about to be on the cover
2401:11 of Wired magazine.
2501:13 In those heady days,
2601:15 we were experimenting
2701:17 with chat rooms and online virtual communities.
2801:20 We were exploring different aspects of ourselves.
2901:24 And then we unplugged.
3001:26 I was excited.
3101:28 And, as a psychologist, what excited me most
3201:31 was the idea
3301:33 that we would use what we learned in the virtual world
3401:36 about ourselves, about our identity,
3501:39 to live better lives in the real world.
3601:42 Now fast-forward to 2012.
3701:45 I'm back here on the TED stage again.
3801:48 My daughter's 20. She's a college student.
3901:51 She sleeps with her cellphone,
4001:55 so do I.
4101:57 And I've just written a new book,
4202:00 but this time it's not one
4302:03 that will get me on the cover
4402:05 of Wired magazine.
4502:07 So what happened?
4602:10 I'm still excited by technology,
4702:13 but I believe,
4802:15 and I'm here to make the case,
4902:17 that we're letting it take us places
5002:19 that we don't want to go.
5102:21 Over the past 15 years,
5202:23 I've studied technologies of mobile communication
5302:26 and I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people,
5402:29 young and old,
5502:31 about their plugged in lives.
5602:33 And what I've found
5702:35 is that our little devices,
5802:37 those little devices in our pockets,
5902:40 are so psychologically powerful
6002:42 that they don't only change what we do,
6102:46 they change who we are.
6202:49 Some of the things we do now with our devices
6302:51 are things that, only a few years ago,
6402:54 we would have found odd
6502:56 or disturbing,
6602:58 but they've quickly come to seem familiar,
6703:01 just how we do things.
6803:03 So just to take some quick examples:
6903:06 People text or do email
7003:08 during corporate board meetings.
7103:11 They text and shop and go on Facebook
7203:14 during classes, during presentations,
7303:17 actually during all meetings.
7403:19 People talk to me about the important new skill
7503:22 of making eye contact
7603:24 while you're texting.
7703:26 (Laughter)
7803:28 People explain to me
7903:30 that it's hard, but that it can be done.
8003:33 Parents text and do email
8103:35 at breakfast and at dinner
8203:37 while their children complain
8303:40 about not having their parents' full attention.
8403:42 But then these same children
8503:44 deny each other their full attention.
8603:47 This is a recent shot
8703:49 of my daughter and her friends
8803:52 being together
8903:54 while not being together.
9003:57 And we even text at funerals.
9103:59 I study this.
9204:01 We remove ourselves
9304:03 from our grief or from our revery
9404:05 and we go into our phones.
9504:08 Why does this matter?
9604:10 It matters to me
9704:12 because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble --
9804:15 trouble certainly
9904:17 in how we relate to each other,
10004:19 but also trouble
10104:21 in how we relate to ourselves
10204:24 and our capacity for self-reflection.
10304:27 We're getting used to a new way
10404:29 of being alone together.
10504:32 People want to be with each other,
10604:34 but also elsewhere --
10704:36 connected to all the different places they want to be.
10804:39 People want to customize their lives.
10904:42 They want to go in and out of all the places they are
11004:45 because the thing that matters most to them
11104:47 is control over where they put their attention.
11204:51 So you want to go to that board meeting,
11304:54 but you only want to pay attention
11404:56 to the bits that interest you.
11504:58 And some people think that's a good thing.
11605:01 But you can end up
11705:03 hiding from each other,
11805:05 even as we're all constantly connected to each other.
11905:08 A 50-year-old business man
12005:10 lamented to me
12105:12 that he feels he doesn't have colleagues anymore at work.
12205:15 When he goes to work, he doesn't stop by to talk to anybody,
12305:18 he doesn't call.
12405:20 And he says he doesn't want to interrupt his colleagues
12505:23 because, he says, "They're too busy on their email."
12605:26 But then he stops himself
12705:28 and he says, "You know, I'm not telling you the truth.
12805:30 I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted.
12905:33 I think I should want to,
13005:35 but actually I'd rather just do things on my Blackberry."
13105:39 Across the generations,
13205:41 I see that people can't get enough of each other,
13305:45 if and only if
13405:47 they can have each other at a distance,
13505:50 in amounts they can control.
13605:52 I call it the Goldilocks effect:
13705:55 not too close, not too far,
13805:58 just right.
13906:00 But what might feel just right
14006:02 for that middle-aged executive
14106:04 can be a problem for an adolescent
14206:06 who needs to develop face-to-face relationships.
14306:10 An 18-year-old boy
14406:12 who uses texting for almost everything
14506:15 says to me wistfully,
14606:17 "Someday, someday,
14706:20 but certainly not now,
14806:22 I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."
14906:26 When I ask people
15006:28 "What's wrong with having a conversation?"
15106:31 People say, "I'll tell you what's wrong with having a conversation.
15206:35 It takes place in real time
15306:38 and you can't control what you're going to say."
15406:42 So that's the bottom line.
15506:44 Texting, email, posting,
15606:47 all of these things
15706:49 let us present the self as we want to be.
15806:52 We get to edit,
15906:54 and that means we get to delete,
16006:57 and that means we get to retouch,
16107:00 the face, the voice,
16207:02 the flesh, the body --
16307:04 not too little, not too much,
16407:07 just right.
16507:09 Human relationships
16607:11 are rich and they're messy
16707:13 and they're demanding.
16807:15 And we clean them up with technology.
16907:18 And when we do,
17007:20 one of the things that can happen
17107:22 is that we sacrifice conversation
17207:24 for mere connection.
17307:26 We short-change ourselves.
17407:29 And over time,
17507:31 we seem to forget this,
17607:33 or we seem to stop caring.
17707:36 I was caught off guard
17807:40 when Stephen Colbert
17907:42 asked me a profound question,
18007:46 a profound question.
18107:49 He said, "Don't all those little tweets,
18207:55 don't all those little sips
18307:58 of online communication,
18408:01 add up to one big gulp
18508:04 of real conversation?"
18608:08 My answer was no,
18708:10 they don't add up.
18808:12 Connecting in sips may work
18908:16 for gathering discrete bits of information,
19008:20 they may work for saying, "I'm thinking about you,"
19108:24 or even for saying, "I love you," --
19208:26 I mean, look at how I felt
19308:28 when I got that text from my daughter --
19408:31 but they don't really work
19508:33 for learning about each other,
19608:35 for really coming to know and understand each other.
19708:39 And we use conversations with each other
19808:43 to learn how to have conversations
19908:45 with ourselves.
20008:47 So a flight from conversation
20108:49 can really matter
20208:51 because it can compromise
20308:53 our capacity for self-reflection.
20408:55 For kids growing up,
20508:57 that skill is the bedrock of development.
20609:01 Over and over I hear,
20709:03 "I would rather text than talk."
20809:06 And what I'm seeing
20909:08 is that people get so used to being short-changed
21009:10 out of real conversation,
21109:12 so used to getting by with less,
21209:15 that they've become almost willing
21309:17 to dispense with people altogether.
21409:19 So for example,
21509:21 many people share with me this wish,
21609:23 that some day a more advanced version of Siri,
21709:26 the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone,
21809:29 will be more like a best friend,
21909:31 someone who will listen
22009:33 when others won't.
22109:35 I believe this wish
22209:37 reflects a painful truth
22309:39 that I've learned in the past 15 years.
22409:42 That feeling that no one is listening to me
22509:46 is very important
22609:48 in our relationships with technology.
22709:50 That's why it's so appealing
22809:52 to have a Facebook page
22909:54 or a Twitter feed --
23009:56 so many automatic listeners.
23109:59 And the feeling that no one is listening to me
23210:02 make us want to spend time
23310:04 with machines that seem to care about us.
23410:07 We're developing robots,
23510:09 they call them sociable robots,
23610:11 that are specifically designed to be companions --
23710:14 to the elderly,
23810:16 to our children,
23910:18 to us.
24010:20 Have we so lost confidence
24110:23 that we will be there for each other?
24210:27 During my research
24310:29 I worked in nursing homes,
24410:31 and I brought in these sociable robots
24510:34 that were designed to give the elderly
24610:36 the feeling that they were understood.
24710:39 And one day I came in
24810:41 and a woman who had lost a child
24910:43 was talking to a robot
25010:45 in the shape of a baby seal.
25110:48 It seemed to be looking in her eyes.
25210:50 It seemed to be following the conversation.
25310:53 It comforted her.
25410:56 And many people found this amazing.
25511:00 But that woman was trying to make sense of her life
25611:05 with a machine that had no experience
25711:08 of the arc of a human life.
25811:11 That robot put on a great show.
25911:13 And we're vulnerable.
26011:15 People experience pretend empathy
26111:18 as though it were the real thing.
26211:21 So during that moment
26311:25 when that woman
26411:27 was experiencing that pretend empathy,
26511:30 I was thinking, "That robot can't empathize.
26611:33 It doesn't face death.
26711:35 It doesn't know life."
26811:37 And as that woman took comfort
26911:39 in her robot companion,
27011:41 I didn't find it amazing;
27111:43 I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments
27211:47 in my 15 years of work.
27311:51 But when I stepped back,
27411:53 I felt myself
27511:55 at the cold, hard center
27611:58 of a perfect storm.
27712:00 We expect more from technology
27812:03 and less from each other.
27912:06 And I ask myself,
28012:08 "Why have things come to this?"
28112:11 And I believe it's because
28212:13 technology appeals to us most
28312:16 where we are most vulnerable.
28412:18 And we are vulnerable.
28512:20 We're lonely,
28612:22 but we're afraid of intimacy.
28712:24 And so from social networks to sociable robots,
28812:27 we're designing technologies
28912:29 that will give us the illusion of companionship
29012:32 without the demands of friendship.
29112:34 We turn to technology to help us feel connected
29212:37 in ways we can comfortably control.
29312:40 But we're not so comfortable.
29412:42 We are not so much in control.
29512:45 These days, those phones in our pockets
29612:48 are changing our minds and hearts
29712:50 because they offer us
29812:52 three gratifying fantasies.
29912:54 One, that we can put our attention
30012:56 wherever we want it to be;
30112:58 two, that we will always be heard;
30213:01 and three, that we will never have to be alone.
30313:04 And that third idea,
30413:06 that we will never have to be alone,
30513:09 is central to changing our psyches.
30613:11 Because the moment that people are alone,
30713:14 even for a few seconds,
30813:16 they become anxious, they panic, they fidget,
30913:19 they reach for a device.
31013:21 Just think of people at a checkout line
31113:23 or at a red light.
31213:25 Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved.
31313:29 And so people try to solve it by connecting.
31413:32 But here, connection
31513:34 is more like a symptom than a cure.
31613:37 It expresses, but it doesn't solve,
31713:40 an underlying problem.
31813:42 But more than a symptom,
31913:44 constant connection is changing
32013:46 the way people think of themselves.
32113:48 It's shaping a new way of being.
32213:51 The best way to describe it is,
32313:53 I share therefore I am.
32413:56 We use technology to define ourselves
32513:59 by sharing our thoughts and feelings
32614:01 even as we're having them.
32714:03 So before it was:
32814:05 I have a feeling,
32914:07 I want to make a call.
33014:09 Now it's: I want to have a feeling,
33114:12 I need to send a text.
33214:14 The problem with this new regime
33314:17 of "I share therefore I am"
33414:19 is that, if we don't have connection,
33514:21 we don't feel like ourselves.
33614:23 We almost don't feel ourselves.
33714:25 So what do we do? We connect more and more.
33814:28 But in the process,
33914:30 we set ourselves up to be isolated.
34014:33 How do you get from connection to isolation?
34114:37 You end up isolated
34214:39 if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude,
34314:41 the ability to be separate,
34414:44 to gather yourself.
34514:46 Solitude is where you find yourself
34614:49 so that you can reach out to other people
34714:51 and form real attachments.
34814:54 When we don't have the capacity for solitude,
34914:57 we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious
35015:00 or in order to feel alive.
35115:02 When this happens,
35215:04 we're not able to appreciate who they are.
35315:07 It's as though we're using them
35415:09 as spare parts
35515:11 to support our fragile sense of self.
35615:14 We slip into thinking that always being connected
35715:17 is going to make us feel less alone.
35815:21 But we're at risk,
35915:23 because actually it's the opposite that's true.
36015:26 If we're not able to be alone,
36115:28 we're going to be more lonely.
36215:30 And if we don't teach our children to be alone,
36315:33 they're only going to know
36415:35 how to be lonely.
36515:37 When I spoke at TED in 1996,
36615:40 reporting on my studies
36715:42 of the early virtual communities,
36815:44 I said, "Those who make the most
36915:47 of their lives on the screen
37015:49 come to it in a spirit of self-reflection."
37115:52 And that's what I'm calling for here, now:
37215:55 reflection and, more than that, a conversation
37315:58 about where our current use of technology
37416:01 may be taking us,
37516:03 what it might be costing us.
37616:05 We're smitten with technology.
37716:08 And we're afraid, like young lovers,
37816:11 that too much talking might spoil the romance.
37916:14 But it's time to talk.
38016:16 We grew up with digital technology
38116:19 and so we see it as all grown up.
38216:21 But it's not, it's early days.
38316:24 There's plenty of time
38416:26 for us to reconsider how we use it,
38516:28 how we build it.
38616:30 I'm not suggesting
38716:32 that we turn away from our devices,
38816:34 just that we develop a more self-aware relationship
38916:37 with them, with each other
39016:39 and with ourselves.
39116:42 I see some first steps.
39216:44 Start thinking of solitude
39316:46 as a good thing.
39416:48 Make room for it.
39516:50 Find ways to demonstrate this
39616:53 as a value to your children.
39716:55 Create sacred spaces at home --
39816:57 the kitchen, the dining room --
39916:59 and reclaim them for conversation.
40017:02 Do the same thing at work.
40117:04 At work, we're so busy communicating
40217:06 that we often don't have time to think,
40317:09 we don't have time to talk,
40417:12 about the things that really matter.
40517:14 Change that.
40617:16 Most important, we all really need to listen to each other,
40717:20 including to the boring bits.
40817:24 Because it's when we stumble
40917:26 or hesitate or lose our words
41017:29 that we reveal ourselves to each other.
41117:33 Technology is making a bid
41217:36 to redefine human connection --
41317:38 how we care for each other,
41417:40 how we care for ourselves --
41517:42 but it's also giving us the opportunity
41617:44 to affirm our values
41717:46 and our direction.
41817:48 I'm optimistic.
41917:50 We have everything we need to start.
42017:53 We have each other.
42117:55 And we have the greatest chance of success
42217:58 if we recognize our vulnerability.
42318:01 That we listen
42418:03 when technology says
42518:05 it will take something complicated
42618:08 and promises something simpler.
42718:11 So in my work,
42818:13 I hear that life is hard,
42918:16 relationships are filled with risk.
43018:18 And then there's technology --
43118:20 simpler, hopeful,
43218:22 optimistic, ever-young.
43318:25 It's like calling in the cavalry.
43418:27 An ad campaign promises
43518:29 that online and with avatars,
43618:31 you can "Finally, love your friends
43718:35 love your body, love your life,
43818:38 online and with avatars."
43918:41 We're drawn to virtual romance,
44018:43 to computer games that seem like worlds,
44118:46 to the idea that robots, robots,
44218:50 will someday be our true companions.
44318:53 We spend an evening on the social network
44418:56 instead of going to the pub with friends.
44518:59 But our fantasies of substitution
44619:01 have cost us.
44719:04 Now we all need to focus
44819:07 on the many, many ways
44919:09 technology can lead us back
45019:11 to our real lives, our own bodies,
45119:14 our own communities,
45219:16 our own politics,
45319:18 our own planet.
45419:20 They need us.
45519:22 Let's talk about
45619:24 how we can use digital technology,
45719:27 the technology of our dreams,
45819:30 to make this life
45919:32 the life we can love.
46019:34 Thank you.
46119:36 (Applause)