I try always to be a generous reader. There is much to be gained by reading with the grain rather than against it, as we are taught to do in academia. However, I found myself frequently exasperated by Sherry Turkle’s Always On. The tone of the book—or at least the sections that we read—is predominantly moralistic. I was also bothered by Turkle’s methodology. Her writing is almost entirely anecdotal, and from these anecdotes, she draws overly broad, unnuanced generalizations that seem to flatten or betray the ambiguities of the evidence. Consider Turkle’s visit to Paris with her daughter, Rebecca (156). She writes, “As we sat in a café….Rebecca received a call from a schoolmate who asked her to lunch in Boston… My daughter said simply, ‘Not possible, but how about Friday?'” There is a subtle irony in what the mother and Rebecca’s friend does not. I could see this anecdote launching into a social comedy or even something more serious—an existential hiccup of sort. (How do we know who we are when others don’t even know where we are?) But Turkle leaps immediately to the moralistic. “I asked her if she wouldn’t rather experience Paris without continual reminders of Boston.…My Paris came with the thrill of disconnection from everything I knew. My daughter’s Paris did not include this displacement” (156).
Turkle doesn’t entirely overlook the cavils one could make to this claim: that the mother’s companionship obliterates the possibility of complete disconnection. Nor does she deny that teenagers are willful creatures who often like to create distance between themselves and their family’s wishes for them. But she dismisses this all by noting that the “Internet is more than old wine in new bottles”—nice Francophile metaphor—”now we can always be elsewhere” (156). But I would point out that the notion of achieving some edifying and educational cultural disconnection by being a tourist in another country with your mother in tow is itself laughable, and that Rebecca possesses a more realistic and clear-eyed view of reality than does her mother, who lives in the virtual reality of myth and nostalgia for some pre-diluvian age (B.S.: Before Smartphones).
I guess I am saying that I wish Turkle the psychologist would stay closer to the psychological aspects of technology use, and all the messy ambiguities that come with it. That’s why I found her reference to to Erik Erickson’s notion of a “moratorium” (152) so intriguing, and wish she had stay with it longer. (She writes of the moratorium, “This is a time, relatively consequence free, for doing what adolescents need to do: fall in and out of love with people and ideas. Real life does not always provide this kind of space, but the Internet does” . Well, I’m not sure that “real life” lacks those possibilities; if so, what did adolescents do before the Internet?) Turkle claims there is a definitive shift in the ways that smartphones and digital technologies affect consciousness. Perhaps. But I would be more open to being convinced if I could first see Turkle establish how normal transitional objects work, and then whether smartphones of the robot-pet functions differently. (I am thinking here of the object relations school of psychology, of Melanie Klein and especially Daniel Winnicott, and the ways that relationships to objects precede and augment relationships with persons.) Children play with and project feelings onto inanimate objects as part of development, so I don’t see why an elderly woman taking solace in her robot-pet is so alarming. Also, people use all sorts of mechanisms for destroying intimacy and achieving privacy and separation—not just technology. Perhaps the trouble with smartphone use is that it makes these disconnecting mechanisms more visible. The smartphone prevents Turkle from projecting intimate connections onto people and situations where there are none.
That said, the person talking into their cell phone loudly on the train that forced Turkle to move — rude!