By Nancy Tannler


The Belmont Library recently invited the public to attend a TED talk with a group discussion afterwards.

The TED talk presenter was Sherry Turkle, an MIT technology and society specialist. Her recent book “Alone Together” was compiled from information gathered over the past fifteen years exploring our growing dependence on digital technology and how it is reshaping our relationships to each other.

Turkle’s main premise is that the more time we spend using  technology as the basis of relationships, the less time we have for each other.

Winston Churchill said that we shape our buildings, then they shape us. In the same vein, Turkle sees technology becoming the scheduler and the ultimate of our intimacies. People are drawn to the illusion of companionship without the demand of maintaining that relationship.

This is evidenced by users of the online virtual world developed in San Francisco in 2003 called Second Life. Second Life users create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars. They interact with other avatars, places or objects and can explore the world (known as the grid), meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, build, create, shop and trade virtual property and services with one another.

During Turkle’s talk she listed grievances we all are experiencing with the advent of the cellphone and smart phone/handheld computer.

These days, people think nothing of interrupting an intimate conversation to check their phone. There’s no place sacred anymore from the church to the office, the mountains to our bedrooms that someone isn’t texting.

“Everyone is always having their attention divided between the world of people they’re with and this ‘other’ reality,” Turkle said.

As a society we expect more from technology and less from each other which, over time, can change the way our brains work and how we relate to one another.

If  Michio Kaku’s, (author of Physics of the Future) technological predictions for the next hundred years holds true, we won’t have to memorize anything ever again. Microchips are being developed that are so small they will eventually be installed in our contacts or accessories and will do most of our thinking for us.

At one time boredom spurred humans to get together with friends, learn a hobby and even create great inventions. Both Kaku and Turkle concur that people don’t tolerate boredom anymore, especially the children, and they wonder what implications that will have on our brains over time and our interactions with society.

All the great poets and philosophers of the past revelled in solitude because they believed it was the opportunity to know ourselves better and to learn to rely on that still, small voice.

Turkle also spoke about hope. Just as we were all drawn to the Belmont library to learn more about being “Alone Together”, so people everywhere are starting to ask the hard questions about digital saturation.

There is a cost of letting go of direct human contact and people are starting to look at that cost. At the threshold of what Turkle calls “the robotic moment”, our devices prompt us to recall that we have human purposes and perhaps, to rediscover what they are.”

At the end of the TED Talk, a mother of teenagers noted that everyone present was older. She was curious if younger generations would even see this as a potential problem.

Another comment was the observation that we are now moving amid  a crowd of people that are always looking down at devices and not up and outward. The commenter felt that serendipitous encounters with strangers might disappear if everyone already has something to talk to.

We are almost completely reliant on our computers and the internet and that wields great power. According to Kaku and his predictions, they have the potential to create a society that is in his words, “heaven on earth”,  but it will all be because humans have programmed the computers that make these conditions.

The  ability for computers to become more than humans, like Hal in 2001:A Space Odyssey, is a remote possibility, something we won’t be close to for a thousand years.

For the time being, if a person isn’t too addicted, they  can still choose how involved in their own life they want to be.

As warning flags start to go up, the savvy ones will learn the checks and balances of a real life and a virtual life.