Alone Together, A Book Review

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Recently we’ve noticed that a flurry of articles, posts, and pieces have been written about the implications that modern-day technology and social media have on relationships. Perhaps these pieces were written in light of Facebook’s 10th birthday, or maybe it’s because there’s been a rise in research about the link between technology and real life. Either way, it’s caused us to take interest in a book written by Sherry Turkle in 2011 called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. We were drawn in by praise for the book, specifically by this quote from the reviewers at the Financial Times:

In this beautifully written, provocative and worrying book, Turkle, a professor at MIT, a clinical psychologist and, perhaps, the world’s leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology, argues that internet use has as much power to isolate and destroy relationships as it has to bring us together.

Of course, we know that there is so much beauty and healthy connectedness in the world because of the internet. After all, you wouldn’t even be reading this piece if you didn’t have access to the worldwide web! But since various forms of social media have now been around long enough for experts to assess the benefits and pitfalls of using them, we are increasingly aware of the ways in which we need to step away from the computer (or smart phone, or tablet) in order to truly live meaningful lives.

Turkle’s book gives us a few ideas of how to do this:

Embrace Solitude.

Today’s society advocates constant connectedness and in many ways, that’s a great thing. We can stay in touch with family and friends who live far away, work remotely while on business trips, make connections with people we might never have known otherwise, and explore the world right from our computer screen or cell phones. Yet, Alone Together makes the argument that we need to create space for silence by setting technology aside, even if just for a little while. Turkle points out that seeking solitude is especially important for teenagers as they grow into adulthood:

Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathetic skills, to think about their values and identity, and to manage and express feelings. They need time to discover themselves, time to think.

Adults need time to discover themselves and think, too. Stillness gives us time to reflect, journal, pause, and express gratitude. Maybe we don’t need to be silent to find stillness – maybe we just need to unplug for a bit in order to do so.

“People are lonely. The network is seductive,” Turkle acknowledges. “But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.”

Unplug & Connect Offline.

Turkle asserts that it’s important to take a break from our devices when in the presence of loved ones. While it’s not always possible to turn off our phones, it is possible (and important) to give the people we’re with our undivided attention. Turkle writes that though we are good at setting aside time to spend together, we’re not actually getting the benefit of true connectedness because we’re more focused on our phones than we are on each other:

We have found ways of spending more time with friends and family in which we hardly give them any attention at all.

Distracted by technology, we end up isolating the people we’re with by prioritizing the content and updates we receive over what our friends and family are saying to us in the present moment. Making time to spend together in person is important, and it’s certainly the first step in maintaining healthy relationships. The next step is to turn away from our devices and focus on the people we’re actually with.

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Communicate Face-to-Face.

At various points throughout Alone Together, Turkle highlights the importance of having serious conversations face-to-face instead of through a device. She says that “online communication…offers us an opportunity to ignore other people’s feelings.” When we’re distracted by several open browsers or if we’re not picking up on certain cues (which can be hard to do if you can’t hear a person’s tone or view their body language), we can easily overlook a person’s attempt at connecting with us emotionally. Since it’s become so easy to talk through typing instead of in person, we’re missing opportunities to really connect and strengthen relationships because, after all, in difficult times of need it feels better to have a literal shoulder to lean on.

Turkle does not say that texting and e-mailing are solely responsible for breakdowns in communication. She acknowledges the important things about those forms of communication, but she also makes a good point:

Texts…can certainly be emotional, insightful, and sexy. They can lift us up. They can make us feel understood, desired, and supported. But they are not a place to deeply understand a problem or to explain a complicated situation.

The benefits of technology are as numerous as the stars, but let’s take a minute to assess how deeply connected we are to our mobile devices and internet presences. How is this behavior affecting our relationships? It could be time to shift our focus away from technology, giving us the space to seek out solitude, real-world connections, and face-to-face conversations, allowing us to live fuller, richer lives.

Do you feel like technology has hindered the relationships around you? How can you practice being a device-free friend this week?

Image via Scout and Catalogue and Zackery Smith

Rachel is the Development Director for the Touch A Life Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of exploited and trafficked children in West Africa and Southeast Asia. She currently lives in Dallas, TX, with her husband, their baby girl Ruby, and their cuddly English mastiff.

13 COMMENTS
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  • Gabbie March 3, 2014

    I need to pick up this book! Whenever I eat dinner with my family my father has the rule that no phones are allowed. I sometimes get so tired of being so connected all the time. All of my free time is spent on the computer since I have a small online business. I think it’s so important to disconnect though, and I find it so rude that when you’re chatting with someone their face is glued to their device. Years ago I stopped visiting a cousin of mine because she was always either on the phone talking to someone else or on Facebook when I’d go there.

    It’s sad that the same tool that connects to many of us, that gives so many companies and individuals a livelihood and place for expression, can also so easily be abused. It’s a double edged sword that has to be used with consciously.

    • Rachel March 3, 2014

      Such great insight, Gabbie! I love the no-phones-at-dinner rule – definitely a game-changer. Thank you so much for reading & commenting on this post!

  • mallory February 23, 2014

    Lately I’ve noticed that at dinner everyone has their phone on the table, and it breaks my heart. No one knows how to live without their technology anymore, and it’s destroying our relationships with each other. One of my friends and I recently were bickering, and the only way she could communicate about it was by sending me a long text explaining everything that she felt was going wrong. I didn’t want to pressure her into talking to me, but it hurt that she felt the only way she could communicate with me about our issues was through the most diluted, distanced option. I really agree that sensitivity to the ways our technology affects our lives is critical, so thanks for writing such an eloquent post! I’ll be sure to go check out the book too!

    • Rachel February 24, 2014

      Thank you so much for your beautiful response, Mallory. I am so sorry about the conflict with your friend – that is so hurtful and, I agree, unfortunately that type of behavior is happening more and more these days. Thank you for reading and, if you choose to check out Alone Together, I hope you enjoy it!

  • viv February 20, 2014

    Okay, how did he get into that hammocks? I spy no ladders or superhuman abilities.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this – I’m in the middle of reading this book right now and it’s giving me such a dose of perspective! Interactions between people have changed so much in the past few years and we desperately need to take a look at how positively (or negatively) we relate to others.

    • Rachel February 20, 2014

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Lindsey! So cool that you’re reading the book and contemplating the same thoughts that I had.

  • Natalie Lynn Borton February 19, 2014

    Great post, Rach! So many good things to think about—I definitely want to get the book after reading this!

    • Rachel February 20, 2014

      Awesome, thanks, Nat!

  • Stephanie February 19, 2014

    I’ve definitely found myself falling for the lure of quick-and-easy via electronics, and during the day I’m tuned in all the time (I’m in marketing). I find it an easy way to have a conversation, but I agree that truly meaningful time takes place away from what is a wonderful tool. Relationships, which are eternal, take place apart from it.

    • Rachel February 20, 2014

      Beautiful response, Stephanie. Thanks for your comment!

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