RU Sirius reviews Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which is one wave of a supposed “tide of cyber-skepticism [sweeping] the US.” I haven’t read Turkle’s book. but RU’s review suggests an exploration of the disconnect between expectations of “social” media – that it will make us more social – and the reality, that it can make us more aware how alone we are.
I have a problem with broad assumptions about any phenomenon, and I know that the perception and reality of social media is too complex for any kind of generalization. Experiences differ: some have complete and powerful social experiences in virtual environments, while others might find that they’re lost in the funhouse.
And I think it’s misleading to analyze online social experience as somehow divorced from physical experience of the world and other people. While some might feel even more alienated as they’re exposed to the myriad plancasts within the social stream, others are living in what you might call a post-technological reality, where connected technologies are as inherent in the environment as running water, and are used to coordinate more expansive social experiences in the “real” or physical world. With smartphones, SMS, augmented reality, location-aware services we are doing more than merely “friending” on Facebook, and as we stare into the large and small screens within our environment, we see them not as trap doors, but as windows on the world.
Part of the problem may be in our expectations for “social.” Wikipedia tells me that social “refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence,” and that sounds right to me. But the “interaction of organisms” is not always wonderful. Humans interact and exist together, but the social parameters are as often challenging as satisfying. I.e. social interaction, however mediated, will have inherent frustrations, missteps, disconnects, and conflicts… parties are social events, but so are wars. In fact communities are often defined by their wars; the joining together of people by affinity or geography is as likely to produce conflict as harmonious connection.
I don’t know that I’m responding to Turkle’s book here, since I haven’t read it, and I probably should do that and write more in response. These are just some thoughts inspired by RU’s take on the book, but really more about my take on “social.” As so often happens, we’re using a word broadly, I think, without being clear as to its meaning.