Not Looking Backwards

[This post is the text of my final essay for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar.]

Not Looking Backwards: Understanding New Technology’s Transformative Power and its limitations

For every study decrying technology’s negative societal impacts,1 a study detailing how it reinforces and improves society exists.2 The debate over digital technology is not whether or not it is changing society, but rather whether these changes are good or bad for society. A prolific writer on humans’ interactions with computer technology, Sherry Turkle addresses this issue in both Life on the Screen: Identity in the Internet Age and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, warning against the dangers of new technology, from artificial intelligence to sociable robots and online role playing games to social networks.3 Frontline’s “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” examines many of the same dangers, examining new digital methods for business, education, and even war.4 Society, as well as scholars more specifically, must listen to Turkle’s and Frontline’s warnings. However, these works overstate new technology’s uniqueness, failing to contextualize the digital present and future with the analog past.

In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle studies what she calls the “culture of simulation,” which created an environment that blended together virtual and real worlds and allowed users to explore different identities, leading to a more postmodern understanding of the self as a sum of many parts. Turkle begins with early computers, whose interface necessitated the typing of commands and reminded the user of the computer was a tool. However, the emergence and adoption of the Macintosh’s interface simulated real life, giving the user a “desktop” and folders with which to organize his or her things. This simulation, which Turkle refers to as one of “The Seductions of Interface,” allowed people to become users, not understanding the machine’s inner workings. Although computers became accessible to everyday people, not just hackers and hobbyists, Turkle argues the movement towards interacting with computers only at the interface level has made people more susceptible to the culture of simulation. After establishing the computer transformed into more than a tool,Turkle moves onto discussing artificial intelligence’s evolution and the blurring of life and technology, pondering artificial life. Turkle continues with another messy boundary, the one between real and virtual life and its power to reconstruct of identity. As the easiest, though not the only, space for people to explore new identities, virtual worlds, particularly Multi-User Domains (MUDs), facilitated the decentralization of the self, as well as the culture of simulation’s adoption, but raised questions of authenticity and reality.5

Though her warning against complacency with technology is valuable, Turkle overstates her argument frequently implying the negativity of certain developments that are not clearly negative. Arguing the culture of simulation’s rise began with the Macintosh’s interface, Turkle suggests the interface that no longer required the memorization of commands encouraged “exploration” and “play.” Instead of analyzing the potential benefits encouraging a playful mind might bring, however, Turkle situates her observations about the Macintosh within a loss of one’s ability to understand how the machine worked. Turkle proceeds with the assumption that one must know what happens “under the hood” to get the full use of a computer.6 While she is correct that knowing the inner workings can only benefit a user’s experience, Turkle writes with the assumption that computers are the only things humans use with interfaces hiding the object’s operation when in fact virtually every item of modern life has an interface. If included, a broader analysis of interfaces could have strengthened her argument, though its omission reveals her general negativity towards technology. Starting even with her table of contents, Turkle produces a tone suggesting the computer is “seducing” people, exploration of gender causes “trouble,” virtual worlds create “discontents” and examination of identity leads to a “crisis.” While Turkle notes many of virtual spaces’ benefits, like the benefits of the Macintosh’s interface, she couches these positive aspects within negative connotations.

Turkle expands on many of the Life on the Screen‘s ideas, particularly how the computer allows a person to “be a loner yet never be alone” in Alone Together.7 Arguing technology isolates its users, despite the fact they feel connected, Turkle breaks her argument into two parts. She first states increasingly sophisticated sociable robots present the illusion of companionship to isolated individuals. However, the rise of human-robot interaction is actually “tomorrow’s story” to Turkle. For people to be comfortable with the low quality relationships robotic companions provide, Turkle argues, people must come to expect less from interpersonal relationships, which the emergence of continual networked communication is now facilitating. Maintaining her stance from Life on the Screen, Turkle finds the technology’s seductive nature now threatening to replace human companionship. She emphasizing the performative nature of networked relationships, in which one can display any image desirable, as well as robotic relationships, during which robots only act like they understand and feel, suggesting real relationships will suffer from these performances.8

Her warning against complacency with technology is again warranted as new technology should not be a substitute for personal relationships. However, Turkle once again takes an overly negative, alarmist stance against technology, ignoring the broader contexts in which technology exists. Turkle argues against, as she sees it, less personal communication like texting, instant messaging or email, but rather than providing evidence for her argument, she more often glorifies past technology. She titles a chapter “No Need to Call,” though a telephone is scarcely more personal than her other examples of networked technologies. If Turkle had examined the telephone’s reception, she may have found complaints similar to hers about new technology. In her epilogue, Turkle bemoans the fact that her texts and video chats with her daughter studying abroad will not be preserved like the letters between herself and her mother. Turkle seems to forget she does not have any records of her phone calls, which presumably she made, or that not all letters are preserved. Turkle’s nostalgic evidence does little to support her argument or explore the ways in which technology improves society.9

A more even-handed and comprehensive look at society’s relationships with technology, Frontline’s “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” examines the emergence of digital devices in everyday life. The episode looks contemporary scientific research on how technology affects people and explores the transformative nature of technology in education, business, and the military. By taking a broader view than human relations, Frontline touches on many important issues such as the implications of integrating computers into every facet of the classroom, conducting business virtually, though still “in person” with second life and commuting to a war fought with unmanned drones. Like Turkle, Frontline presents the dangers of fully submitting to technology. Though, the episode also explores the possibility that technology may in fact create a better society, questioning if the book is the best learning method and presenting a world which will value building and creativity and not require memorization.10 While Frontline’s product is far from perfect, relying on a comparatively small amount of case studies and carefully edited clips, by presenting multiple views on technology, the short documentary surpasses Turkle’s in-depth studies.

Each of these works examines human and social relationships with computers and the Internet, questioning both how technology changes people and society as well as whether the changes are good or bad. Although society should not accept technology without scrutiny, in many cases it receives blame for longstanding social problems. Turkle, particularly in Alone Together, indulges the most in this overstating of technology’s influence, suggesting any and all distractions during interpersonal relations result from technology. Even though her analysis of the potential changes in social relationships remains largely useful, her overly nostalgic depictions of past technology neuter her argument. While “the digital is only ephemeral if you don’t take the trouble to make it permanent,”11 the analog is also only ephemeral unless you take the trouble to make it permanent. Online networks facilitate less personal relationships than ones founded in physical companionship. However, Turkle assumes this change means people’s real life relationships are degrading, instead of thinking this new technology may allow for relationships that would have never existed or disappeared over time.

New technology and communication networks have changed society, but not completely. Frontline notes the potential distractions that come with giving students laptops for class use, but distracted students are not a new phenomenal. Students may be surfing the Internet, sending emails or texting, instead of doodling and passing notes, but distractions are present nevertheless. Frontline presented teachers complaining about the declining reading and writing skills of students, on which technology likely has an affect, but the state of the American educational system, specifically its nineteenth century methods, undoubtedly has a larger influence.12 Likewise, Turkle holds up a multitasking granddaughter feeling guilty for distracted communication with her grandmother as an example of the ways in which technology degrades social relationships, but Turkle fails to present an alternative.13 This relationship would not be stronger if the granddaughter was writing letters while on the phone rather than emails, nor would it be better if they did not communicate at all unless in person. Turkle also decries the average consumer’s ability to see “under the hood” of technology, though in reality a minority of tinkerers exist with any given technology while the majority remain users.14

While these works broadly discuss technology’s influences on society, computers and the Internet have begun to affect the humanities. However, like Turkle and Frontline, academics must be careful not to overstate the role of technology. Embracing the digital, does not make a scholar any less of a humanist. Just as technology will not be the destroyer or savior of education or social relations, evolving methods of scholarly analysis and communication will always involve humanistic inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration. However, digital humanists should still heed Turkle’s and Frontline’s warnings. As humanists use digital research methods and communication networks to distribute their findings, they must be cognizant of their tools’ underlying structures and inner workings. Distant readings of texts have emerged as an innovative look at traditional sources. A humanist using a tool to read a corpus at a distance does not need to be able to build the tool from scratch, or even know how the each line of code works. However, every humanist reaping the benefits of such a tool must understand the program’s function. Scholars cannot function as uninformed users. To extract information out of a tool, like text analysis or topic modeling, the inquisitive scholar must understand the way in which the program organizes the data so that he or she may analyze the results and inquire further. Likewise, in building communication networks, digital humanists must be aware of the underlying economic and legal structures or else find themselves at the mercy of others less concerned with scholarly research.

Turkle and Frontline contribute to the discussion of the ways in which technology changes society. Each work fails to fully contextualize societal changes, overlooking technology’s influential role throughout history, but in investigating the digital medium, these works take the vital first step to understand the changes society is undergoing. However, the future requires an understanding of both the variables and the constants. Like digital scholarship, which incorporates new research and communication methods into traditional humanistic practices, new technology will change human interactions, though human needs for interaction, companionship, and community will persist.


1. Angela Harrison, “Children ‘missing out on sleep’ Newsround” BBC News, February 18, 2010, accessed December 15, 2010.

2. Richard Florida, “How Twitter Proves That Place Matters,” The Atlantic Cities, December 7, 2010, accessed December 15, 2010.

3. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Internet Age (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

4. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier” (WGBH, 2010) accessed December 15, 2010.

5. Turkle, Life on the Screen, 9-13, 29-49.

6. Ibid., 34-41.

7. Ibid., 30.

8. Turkle, Alone Together, 1-20.

9. Ibid., 187-209, 297-305.

10. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier.”

11. Turkle, Alone Together, 299.

12. Frontline, “digital_nation: life on the virtual frontier,” particularly chapter 4 “Teaching with Technology and chapter 5, “The Dumbest Generation?”

13. Turkle, Alone Together, 13-14.

14. Turkle, Life on the Screen, 32-36.

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