Alone Together

[This is a reading reflection for HIST946: Digital Humanities for Prof. William G. Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s readings was Sherry Turkle, *Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. You can find related posts here.]*

In 1960 J. C. R. Licklider, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and professor at MIT, published his paper on “Man-Machine Symbiosis.” He envisioned a future where machines would match and eventually exceed the cognitive possibilities of the human brain. Indeed, machines carried the very potential to augment or replace the mind. “it seems entirely possible that, in due course,” he wrote, “electronic or chemical ‘machines’ will outdo the human brain in most of the functions we now consider exclusively within its province.” He proposed a symbiosis between humans and computers that offered real-time, interactive computing. Humans would work alongside machines, moving beyond the “mechanically extended man” and into a world of human-computer collaboration “to think in interaction with a computer in the same way that you think with a colleague whose competence supplements your own.” (J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1 (1960): 4-11.)

Computers have become an everyday part of many lives. The next age, according to Sherry Turkle, will be what she calls the “robotic moment” when robots will be practical and pervasive. Machines like these seem logical because they perform more efficiently and more cheaply than humans, but Turkle is not convinced this is a worthy approach. Technology seems to offer new tools that can only lead to net positives, but she worries that devices will led to people forgetting their sense of humanity. If robots carry a presumed ability to express emotion and understanding — what is known as the “ELIZA effect” — then perhaps they could be seen as superior to human emotions.

Her concerns stretch not only to the world of robotics, but to connectivity and social networks. Parallel to her concerns about robots, she argues that devices have supplanted certain modes of communication. Instead of phone calls or face-to-face conversations, people instinctually “shoot off” emails or send text messages. They make “friends” on Facebook or “network” on Twitter. Like robotic emotions displacing human emotion, she argues that the social world of the Internet is merely a shadow of connections made without meaning. Furthermore, constant connectivity means losing the ability to think deeply and at length. Solitude and privacy become scarce.

What do her arguments have to say about the digital humanities? Most generally, she reminds us not to allow machines to dictate who we are — not only in the sense of being human, but in the sense of being scholars. The analytic capabilities of machines offer stunning potential for analysis of humanistic data, but we must co-evolve with technology rather than allow technology to determine the course of reshaping scholarly apparatus. At times the book reads as a nostalgic, romantic, and sentimental longing for an imagined past. One could imagine a similar book written in the wake of the telephone or television as disconnecting people from human emotion (indeed, the lack of historicism in her argument undermines her findings). But her general themes are important and worth consideration for humanists.

01 December 2011 · @jaheppler