I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


February 6, 2012

A Review of Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

If there’s a flaw in Sherry Turkle latest book Alone Together, it’s that it’s deceptively easy to read it as rehashing an old argument about technological substitutions. This argument would claim something like: “Humans cannot and should not be replaced by robots, because we humans have some wonderful quality - creativity, warmth, compassion or genuine understanding - that no robot could ever really provide, if it was superficially convincing at simulating it.”

Here we find a concern with the problem of a simulation becoming so accurate that we can no longer tell the difference between the real thing and what it imitates. This is a fear, but also a goal. The Turing Test, also fictionalized in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is intended as a measure of success.

But this is not Turkle’s concern. In her ethnographic accounts, several examples stand out:

A 9-year old girl weighs the AIBO robot dog against it’s biological counterpart and finds that it has numerous advantages. AIBO is infinitely understanding if you don’t want to play with it. It will never get sick and need to be put to sleep.

Discussing the potential of NurseBot for caring for the elderly or sick, Turkle’s interviewees suggest that patients would feel more comfortable being bathed by a robot. It would never be frustrated or abusive toward those in their care, as health care workers occasionally are, or get burned out and distance themselves from their jobs. In a strange reversal, a robot who could simulate care would have infinite emotional resources, unlike a real human can be depleted and revert to machine-like behavior.

A young woman is willing to trade in her boyfriend for a sophisticated robot that could simulate caring behavior and offer her a no-risk relationship - a robot will never hurt you, lie to you, cheat on you, be jealous, be too tired to listen, get bored and have demands of its own. And as a sexual partner, a robot could easily be programmed to embody Dan Savage’s standard of “good, giving, game” that so many people fail to achieve.

Even though these are examples of machines substituting for humans, but they do not follow the classic objection that machines are unable to mimic some essential human qualities. First, it’s clear that they do have all the warm affective qualities which are normally considered to be out of the reach of the machine’s supposed cold rationality. Second, their failure to mimic humanity is taken as a positive feature, so now the Turing Test would indicate failure rather than success.

The trend doesn’t even apply exclusively to machine substitutes, we also find stories of people becoming less threatening with the aid of technology.

A woman texts her roommate to let her know that she has a visitor. When asked why she doesn’t just knock on the door that’s only 10 feet away, she claims that this would be rude and intrusive. Teenagers say they prefer to send text messages to their friends, because voice conversations are awkward, and you never know if someone has time to talk to you. White collar workers will email their officemates rather than speak directly to them.

Taken together, these stories illustrate a tendency that is increasingly becoming the norm: a direct encounter with another human is experienced as an unpleasant intrusion. We’re anxious to not invade someone’s physical or psychological space and our sense of being unwelcome is heightened. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is referred to as the overproximity of the Other.

What bothers us about the Other? Of course, there are numerous concrete problems that we encounter when dealing with people, and all of the robotic substitutes that Turkle studies have some connection to one or more of them. But isn’t there something suspicious here? Humans have many limitations and failings, but this is also true of machines. So what accounts for this enthusiasm?

Lacan claims that even beyond the pragmatic problems of dealing with people, there is something more. There is something deeply disturbing about the presence of another person, a trauma that is provoked by the enigma of the Other’s desire - “What do they want?”

When we are bothered by this question, an ordinary person appears to us as the Neighbor, an unbearable, overwhelming presence. Also designated by the term Das Ding, the Thing, it is a hideous, unfathomable monster deformed by an obscene desire that remains mysterious. This is the Real of the Other - when another person comes to close to me; the disgusting liquids or smells that emanate from their orifices; the obscenity of a strange person’s sexual arousal; the body’s susceptibility to death and disease; the noises they make when the chew their food or crack their knuckles.

The purpose of symbolic fictions and fantasy images is to allow us to keep our distance from the Neighbor, the traumatic alien dimension of the Other. One such fiction is politeness. When I am alone in an elevator and another person enters, we avoid eye contact and pretend the other does not exist, to spare each other the awkwardness of such an encounter. Or, we make small talk in a desperate attempt to cover it over, to re-establish the fantasy of the friendly human face by asserting some trivial shared experience that allows us to experience the other as a mirror image of me, rather than radically unknowable.

Sherry Turkle finds that what we like about robots and digitally-mediated communication is precisely the absence of this Neighbor, the elimination of this traumatic overproximity. Others are there when we need them, they vanish when we don’t. We can expose our secrets to an anonymous community and experience their warmth and sympathy, until they judge us, at which point we can dismiss them as just strangers who couldn’t possibly understand us. A robotic romantic partner will provide the semblance of care and we allow ourselves to feel a human-like experience, but it will not be so human as to provoke the disturbing question, “What does it desire?” This is what Žižek refers to as the decaffeinated Other:

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness.

What we find in Alone Together is another iteration of this idea, the desire for a fully domesticated human deprived of malignant aspects – a potentially disturbing development in light of Lacan’s ethical injunction to love this Neighbor.

Closely related to the decaffeinated Other is the problem of so-called toxic people: emotional vampires, manipulators, users, narcissists, people who are angry, negative, critical or judgmental. Best-selling self-help books warn us about being preyed on by these sociopaths, and help us identify them and get them out of our lives. A sociable robot is an ideal solution for a person who is stuck in a relationship with someone that makes them miserable, but can’t leave because they are afraid of being alone. Or for that matter, a (semi-)ethical way for a “toxic person” to find a target for their torments.

Accepting these substitutes, we may become accustomed to these sanitized interpersonal relationships, heightening our sensitivity to the overwhelming presence of a face-to-face human. The willingness and desire to endure direct contact with a human unprotected by a digital buffer may be considered a unique, idiosyncratic lifestyle choice for those who are brave enough, like extreme sports or parenthood are today.

A metaphor that’s often used to describe the malevolent Neighbor is the undead. This gets at the dimension of horror, but there is also something about the relentless forward motion of the zombie that evokes the notion of death drive. In the classic Disney cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey enchants a broom to fetch water for him, but soon the magic gets out of control. The broom multiples and can no longer be controlled, it performs the task until the house is flooded.

These images evoke the terror of an indestructible machine that has spun out of control, and blindly repeats its function without regard for what’s happening around it. Like a vinyl record stuck in a loop, or a malfunctioning clockwork puppet that repeats a charming facial expression until it becomes grotesque. These hold a strange fascination for us: we know they are empty inside, mere mechanical devices, and yet somehow their endless repetitions make them seem alive, even immortal. They’re dead, but somehow in possession of an excess of life.

It is no accident that these are the very inhuman features that are often attributed to cyborgs and other robots, and generate a certain kind of technophobia. This leads to the paradoxical conclusion: Sherry Turkle describes a trend towards rejecting authentic human relationships for sociable, human-like robots. This is grounded in technophobia.


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