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I turned 40 last week.

Between the festivities and my general desire to cut back on life’s responsibilities to fully enjoy the celebration, I didn’t blog.


One of the things that I did do, however, was finish reading a terrific book that’s been on my “to read” shelf for years. It’s [amazon_link id=”0465031463″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Alone Together : Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other[/amazon_link] and it is pretty mind-blowing.

Alone Together was written by Sherry Turkle, a Ph.D. in Sociology and Personality Psychology and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her focus is the psychology of human relationships with technology.

After exhaustive research, her central premise in Alone Together is:

We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.

Sherry Turkle

In the first half of the book, she concentrates on our relationships with robotics and in the second half she contemplates “the networked life” we now all lead.

Below are some of the (many, many) quotes I found impactful:

On robots:

  • We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.
  • In the psychoanalytic tradition, a symptom addresses a conflict but distracts us from understanding or resolving it; a dream expresses a wish.  Sociable robots serve as both symptom and dream: as a symptom, they promise a way to sidestep conflicts about intimacy; as a dream, they express a wish for relationships with limits, a way to be both together and alone.
  • Artificial intelligence is often described as the art and science of “getting machines to do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people.” We are coming to a parallel definition of artificial emotion as the art of “getting machines to express things that would be considered feelings if expressed by people.”
  • From watching children play with objects designed as “amusements,” we come to a new place, a place of cold comforts. Child and adult, we imagine made to measure companions. Or, at least we imagine companions who are always interested in us.
  • As we saw with simpler robots, the children’s attachments speak not simply to what the robots offer but to what children are missing. Many children in this study seem to lack what they need most: parents who attend to them and a sense of being important. Children imagine sociable machines as substitutes for the people missing in their lives. When the machines fail, it is sometimes a moment to revisit past losses. What we ask of robots shows us what we need.
  • Our bodies find a way to implicate us emotionally in what we see.

On the networked self, especially for teens:

  • Although we can’t keep up with it, we feel responsible for it. It is, after all, our life. We strive to be a self that can keep up with its e-mail.
  • Our networked devices encourage a new notion of time because they promise that one can layer more activities onto it.
  • In a tethered world, too much is possible, yet few can resist measuring success against a metric of what they could accomplish if they were always available.
  • In contrast, e-mail tends to go back and forth without resolution. Misunderstandings are frequent. Feelings get hurt. And the greater the misunderstanding, the greater the number of e-mails, far more than necessary. We come to experience the column of unopened messages in our inboxes as a burden. Then, we project our feelings and worry that our messages are a burden to others.
  • Why do they text while driving? Their reasons are not reasons; they simply express a need to connect.
  • Twenty years ago, as a practicing clinical psychologist, if I had met a college junior who called her mother fifteen times a day, checking in about what shoes to buy and what dress to wear, extolling a new kind of decaffeinated tea, and complaining about the difficulty of a physics problem set, I would have thought her behavior problematic. I would have encouraged her to explore difficulties with separation. I would have assumed that these had to be addressed for her to proceed to successful adulthood. But these days, a college student who texts home fifteen times a day is not unusual.
  • High school students have a lot to say about what kinds of messages “fit” with what kinds of media. This, one might say, is their generational expertise.

On adults and the networked life:

  • If teenagers, overwhelmed with demands for academic and sexual performance, have come to treat online life as a place to hide and draw some lines, then their parents, claiming exhaustion, strive to exert greater control over what reaches them. And the only way to filter effectively is to keep most communications online and text based.
  • The flight to e-mail begins as a “solution” to fatigue. It ends with people having a hard time summoning themselves for a telephone call, and certainly not for “people in person.”
  • In thinking about online life, it helps to distinguish between what psychologists call acting out and working through. In acting out, you take the conflicts you have in the physical real and express them again and again in the virtual. There is much repetition and little growth. In working through, you use the materials of online life to confront the conflicts of the real and search for new resolutions.
  • The self shaped in a world of rapid response measures success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached. This self is calibrated on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy. But in the technology-induced pressure for volume and velocity, we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted. As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems.

All of these observations are backed up by extensive research and years of qualitative data she has amassed. It’s a remarkable book and her parting thought is one I took to heart:

We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.

This profoundly resonates with me.

I am overwhelmed by what is necessary to stay on top of my life right now.

A mere six years ago, to stay on top of my personal business, I had to check my cell phone, my voice mail at home, and my email.

Boy, have things changed!

Here is a list of the technologies I feel I must check daily so I don’t miss anything important and/or fail to respond to someone in a timely manner:

  • email (blog and personal)
  • text messages
  • cell phone voice mail
  • land line voice mail (our cells don’t work at our house)
  • Facebook wall
  • Facebook messages

Why “must” I check all of those? Because they are all modes of communications people I love and about whom I care rely on to communicate with me. I also have “business” spots I check – my Amazon sales rank and reviews for [amazon_link id=”B00GEKA0X2″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Myth of Jake[/amazon_link], my blog comments, blog link backs, blog stats, my Goodreads reviews, Facebook events, etc. I consider these to be more work related and less personal in nature, but they still mean my face is in front of a screen for that much more time.

The ante has been upped. Considerably. And it’s wearing me thin.

So, for my birthday I decided to pull my birthdate from Facebook. While I absolutely love hearing from everyone with happy day wishes, the thought of feeling responsible to “like” or respond to each of the hundreds of messages just exhausted me. Would people think I was snubbing them if I failed to reply?

My plan was foiled by my mom who wished me a happy day in her status and then tagged me, so all of my “friends” could see her wishes. And then the “HBD2Us” started rolling in along with the guilt I felt in not being able to keep pace with them.

One might protest that people don’t really expect a reply, and for some people that is true. The trouble is, some people do and they see it as a slight when the reply isn’t offered.

See? The ante has been upped.

In the end, I replied to most (not all) of the well-wishes. I did so with a happy heart that these folks took the time to wish me well on my latest circle around the sun. But, the whole thing has me really looking critically at how we have ratcheted up expectations for one another and whether anything can be done to either step away from those expectations or collectively bring them back down to a more manageable level.

I feel like I often end my posts with the line I am about to offer you, but it’s the truth: I don’t have any good answers for you on this one. I am, however, going to keep thinking about this kind of thing and if it’s something the resonates with you, grab Turkle’s book. You won’t regret it.

(All quotes by Sherry Turkle from Alone Together. Page citations not offered because (ironically) I read on my Kindle.)

(You can also listen to an interview with Sherry Turkle on the On Being podcast here. Listening to her made me want to read her book.)

Find this and other great posts at Thank Goodness It’s monday #54 here.

7 Responses to “Step Away from the Keyboard, M’am, You’re Forty Now”

  1. on 20 Jan 2014 at 8:53 amChristine

    First things first…happy birthday!! I feel overwhelmed by the connectivity of personal technology and have worked hard to back away from it. A blog that really spurred me into action a few years ago was Hands Free Mama by Rachel Stafford – http://www.handsfreemama.com/hands-free-mama/?gclid=CJjuodLljLwCFeHm7AodIl8AtQ.

    Her intro goes like this: If technology is the new addiction, then multi-tasking is the new marching order. We check our email while cooking dinner, send a text while bathing the kids, and spend more time looking into electronic screens than into the eyes of our loved ones. With our never-ending to-do lists and jam-packed schedules, it’s no wonder we’re distracted. But this isn’t the way it has to be.

  2. on 20 Jan 2014 at 10:04 amKristine Rudolph

    I’ve just recently started reading her stuff and I love it. That is a great quote. You’d enjoy the Turkle book.

    The trouble is, how do we really ratchet down expectations without ignoring people? It’s really hard. I have friends who have opted out of FB but honestly, they do miss a lot. And, in my set, that’s how events get planned – day of meet ups at the park, for example.

    And, I am terrified of my kiddos being so far ahead of me tech-wise that they end up involved in things I can’t even understand. That’s one thing that rings so loudly in Alone Together, that teens are using these tools in ways vastly different from adults. It’s not just kids listening to Elvis and the Beatles, it’s kids speaking in a completely different language from us.

  3. on 20 Jan 2014 at 9:47 pmShannen

    Very thought provoking post! This is my favorite:

    Twenty years ago, as a practicing clinical psychologist, if I had met a college junior who called her mother fifteen times a day, checking in about what shoes to buy and what dress to wear, extolling a new kind of decaffeinated tea, and complaining about the difficulty of a physics problem set, I would have thought her behavior problematic. I would have encouraged her to explore difficulties with separation. I would have assumed that these had to be addressed for her to proceed to successful adulthood. But these days, a college student who texts home fifteen times a day is not unusual.

    How true is that?! Wow. Every passing thought can be a FB post, IG pic, or tweet. It’s crazy. We think in terms of status messages rather than just sitting and pondering to ourselves. I’m really glad to have found you through the TGIM blog hop! 🙂

  4. on 20 Jan 2014 at 10:17 pmKristine Rudolph

    Thanks for popping over! I love Kresha’s TGIM!

    And I also love your statement about how every passing thought can be a status update. Wow – GUILTY as charged of that one.

  5. on 22 Jan 2014 at 3:23 pmStacy Leiser

    Hi, Kristine.

    The “Look at me!” nature of Facebook, blogs and tweets is off-putting to me. I, too, am 40. My 20-year-old ego would have been all over having friends’ and acquaintances’ reactions to the poem I wrote about the cute waiter who served my lunch, or even the photo I took of said lunch. However, at age 40, my ego has shrunk as my perspective has grown. When I make up a silly song that makes my 3-year-old smile, that experience is joyful and COMPLETE. I have no need, and in fact, no urge, to post a video of it on Facebook so I can be told how clever I am and how adorable he is. Using these tools to communicate about events (or books or health or recipes or whatever we want, including silly songs and cute waiters and lunches, if we like) is totally fine, but pressure to be a constant participant in a virtual world is nuts. My close friends and family know texting me is the way to reach me quickly, and I use Facebook for entertainment and more frivolous communication. I don’t apply pressure to anyone on Facebook, nor do I feel any. But I have to choose to keep it that way. Days go by without me checking Facebook, and I don’t feel like I am missing anything. I’m not missing my child’s childhood, that’s for sure!

  6. on 22 Jan 2014 at 3:35 pmKristine Rudolph

    Thanks for your thoughts, Stacy. I am so conflicted about a lot of this. Because being a SAHM as I am can be incredibly isolating. Social media provides a salve to much of that isolation. Would I be out and about were it not for FB? No, because my kid has to eat and have a nap time. And I see my mom, who is a caregiver full time, and she is able to have meaningful interactions with a lot of people – many of whom she had to physically leave for my dad’s health – on a daily basis. All of that is good.

    I also think that establishing boundaries with kids is important, as in, “Mommy is going to take a few minutes for herself.” Should that time be screen time? I don’t know, but in my house where the TV is never on, I don’t see a whole lot of difference between me writing a message to my friends and when my mother used to tell me to be quiet so she could have a phone conversation. I may have been peeved by that, but I never thought, “Mommy doesn’t love me or she wouldn’t be on the phone.” I learned to be respectful and patient and that she was a person with needs, too.

    My thing is, I would hope that we just all keep asking ourselves these questions about the appropriate and healthful use of social media instead of getting sucked mindlessly into the vortex, as it seems you have. Hopefully enough individuals can take Turkle’s advice that there would be a change in the collective reality. Or, maybe there’s no going back. I have to say that when I take my walks on the college campus and see kids walking side-by-side clearly texting back and forth to one another (!), I have to catch my breath a bit.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. […] is a pediatric ER doc, my sister-in-law who is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, and my mom. For all the challenges that technology throws our way, it can sure be a comfort to have people you need there when you need […]

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