Daily Archives: May 8, 2012

Two TED talks: Turkle and Whitacre – Internet Connections and Isolation

I had the opportunity to watch 2 TED talks tonight. Both of them were about the power of technology and its relationship to… well, relationships. The intertwining of connection and isolation as themes across these two videos really struck me tonight.

MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle’s TED talk has gotten a lot of play in social media circles. That’s not surprising, given the topic. Her main point is that we are using technology to create mere connections with others rather than relationships. You could take that sentence and conclude that she wants us to turn off our cell phones and disconnect the internet. You’d be mis-characterizing her point. I think she’s very clear that the technology itself is neutral, and can be used for good or ill. We just need to be more self-aware in its application and how it affects us, psychologically, and how it is changing (and has changed) us societally.

My friend Lee wrote about his reaction to Turkle’s thoughts (from a NYT article that closely follows the text of the video above). He says that he agrees with Turkle, but goes on to state a preference for – and at times reliance on – using technology to create a distance from relationships. He continues:

It does actually make me wonder and consider how much I share online, I’m generally fairly open online but my online personality is vastly different from who I am offline.  We all present different personalities depending on the environment and audience, online is no different. I’m not living a lie I’m just reacting to my environment but then maybe I should keep my private and personal stuff to myself to minimise connectivity and avoid confusion.

By contrast, I consider myself to be fairly conservative in what I share online (though I’m still way more open than some of my family would like me to be). I do completely agree that my online presence is a crafted one. What I give you is really me, but it is carefully selected portions of me designed to engender connections.  Note I used the word “connections.” Some of those connections may become relationships eventually, but the goal of 99% of my online interactions, if I’m honest, is pure connection in the sense used by Turkle. I want someone to acknowledge that they’ve heard me, and I’m completely satisfied in most cases if that acknowledgement comes in the most superficial way. In fact, a lot of times I don’t want it to get any deeper, because that can get messy. On the other hand, I can get very disappointed if the acknowledgement doesn’t come (so you better let me know you read this, you cold-hearted lurkers).

I’m realizing now that I have way too many thoughts on this for a succinct blog post. Heck, even an epically long blog post would only really scratch the surface, and I’m not even sure anyone will finish reading this one. I could go on about the similarities and differences of contrived personalities online vs IRL (“in real life,” for the acronym challenged), the contributions of technology to my own sense of self and the relationships I’ve both cultivated and avoided, the irony of me quoting Lee on this topic as a friend when we’ve never met, the euphoric dopamine drip triggered by Facebook notifications and emails (not to mention comments on here), my handling of technology based on my own awareness of its drug-like effects on me, and my own feelings on isolation amidst connection, just for starters. But for the most part, Turkle hits the highlights. Listen to her talk.

But then consider this other TED video.

Eric Whitacre’s demonstration unintentionally shines a different light on Turkle’s. Turkle presents a warning of the personal and societal consequences of extended reliance on technology, while simultaneously acknowledging the potential benefits it brings. Whitacre’s presentation seems on the surface to be about the benefits of creating something great through that connective technology, but looking at it critically it’s also possible to see that it completely supports Turkle’s argument.

Connection and isolation. Whitacre’s project took isolation and turned it into connection – not to mention something of great beauty. But it doesn’t remove that isolation. There is no true collaboration going on here, except between 2 people: Eric Whitacre and the guy who edited together the video. Everyone else contributed but did not collaborate. To collaborate, the individuals would have to react and adjust to input like the relative volume and pace of the other singers – but that opportunity did not exist. That became the editor’s job. In fact, you could make the argument that there was no collaboration at all. It’s possible that Whitacre left it up to the editor to create the mix, in which case no-one really worked together – it was just a collection of individual contributions, and the final contribution was the editor’s isolated act of integration which created the perception of connection.

Any way you look at it, though, it’s poetic. (I love how the full video for Sleep underscores the isolation and interconnectedness simultaneously in the visual design, not to mention the return to isolation at the end.)