It’s a time of transformation for human connection.
We’re surrounded by technology in a way that’s unprecedented. We connect with one another through technology, but we also connect with technology directly through large language models and artificial intelligence in a way we never have before. It’s an important time for all of us to be thinking about the connection between technology and loneliness. It can be helpful to lean on great thinkers like Sherry Turkle.
Of course, it would be impossible for us to summarize the work of Turkle in a single article. In academic and technological circles, people have been challenging, dissecting, thinking, and rethinking her work for years. It would be impossible for us to summarize all her work on a single page.
So, instead, let us just introduce you.
Sherry Turkle is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prolific author. Her works "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" and "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age," have shaped the modern conversation about technology and loneliness.
She argues that while digital technology has made us more connected than ever, it’s also simultaneously fostered a form of "aloneness." In "Alone Together," Turkle explores the paradoxical nature of these connections, coining the term "alone together" to describe a state where individuals may be physically present with others but emotionally disconnected.
Turkle's work challenges the notion that constant connectivity through social media and smartphones mitigates loneliness. She argues that technology can provide a superficial sense of connection but often lacks the depth and intimacy that genuine human relationships provide. She contends that these shallow online interactions can ultimately leave us feeling more isolated and lonely, despite the illusion of being part of a digital community.
In "Reclaiming Conversation," Turkle underscores the importance of authentic face-to-face conversations. She argues that the quality of our relationships is directly influenced by our capacity for meaningful conversation. The erosion of these conversations in favour of digital exchanges has left a void in our interpersonal lives, contributing to a sense of loneliness and disconnection.
Turkle's work highlights how technology has become a refuge from the discomfort of real-life interactions. Individuals may retreat into the online world to avoid the challenges of in-person relationships, inadvertently deepening their loneliness. Turkle's insights have led her to advocate for a reevaluation of our digital behaviours and a reclaiming of the lost art of conversation.
Sherry Turkle's work on loneliness and technology is foundational. But it’s not without its questions and critiques.
Is Turkle right that technology itself makes us lonely? What if technology can foster genuine connections? Other thinkers have challenged Turkle on this point and argued that the quality of our digital interactions is a product of how we, as individuals, choose to use our technology. Maybe technology itself isn’t bad. Maybe technology can connect us in new and meaningful ways when we design and use it intentionally and thoughtfully. Technology has the capacity to provide support and companionship, particularly for individuals who may be geographically isolated or have difficulty forming in-person relationships. For some, digital connections offer a sense of belonging that is hard to find in the physical world.
Other thinkers have also pointed out that Turkle's work might be conflating causation and correlation. While it’s clear that loneliness and technology are intertwined on some level, it’s hard to know what exactly that level is. Loneliness existed before the advent of the internet and smartphones; other great thinkers like Emile Durkheim and Jean-Paul Sartre have been thinking about this feature of human existence long before the internet. And many of their thoughts are still as relevant today as they were the day they were published. Loneliness is complicated. Who’s to say that technology is entirely to blame?
Regardless of whether or not you align with her thinking, Turkle’s work is a call to reconsider our relationship with technology and to reevaluate our digital interactions. and to rediscover the value of authentic, meaningful conversation in combating the pervasive issue of loneliness in the digital age.
Sherry Turkle is a pioneer in thinking about the interplay between technology and human connection. Her work is at the foundation of so much of today’s dialogue around this paradox of our modern existence. Technology may have led us to a profound state of loneliness and disconnection. But it doesn’t have to.
The simple act of thinking, learning, and reflecting on our loneliness and its connection to the technology we use, cultures we live in, and norms we endorse, can help us build more connected, meaningful lives. Both individually and as a society.