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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.)

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8 comments to Two TED talks: Turkle and Whitacre – Internet Connections and Isolation

  • Lee

    It probably says a lot about me how very taken I am with the second video and the power that technology gives us to connect in such a comfortable albeit selfish way. Selfish in that you control your own connection but inspiring because these connections could never have been made before now.

    I think I’m comfortable with the technology but still grappling with the identity :)
    Lee recently posted..Thoughts of a Storm Trooper part 63My Profile

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    Jeff says:

    ha ha… that second video is pretty awesome.

    I don’t think I was very clear about it (finished writing at 2am), but I do think making those connections is fine and even good – just as Turkle says. The problem comes when it begins to affect your ability to create true relationships, or to be satisfied with alone time. When those connections supersede or become your primary relationships (which is easy to fall into over time), then you may need to take a look at things.

    There is just a huge amount of space and time needed to adequately cover this topic – neither of which I have the energy for.

    But even just as a piece of performance art, that second video is cool. I’m kind of bummed I didn’t know about it in time to participate.

    Reply to this comment

  • Lee

    I thought of something else relating back to an earlier post of yours as well. The cinema experience is a social interaction that I personally could do without. If I could have paid $100 to watch Avengers in the comfort of my own home without the audience that I was forced to share the experience with I would have been more than happy and willing to pay such a ridiculous amount of money.
    Lee recently posted..Thoughts of a Storm Trooper part 63My Profile

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    Jeff says:

    That’s an interesting connection. I would have thought that the Avengers especially was the kind of movie that even those who prefer home experiences would have wanted to see in the cinema. It’s huge and exciting, and the energy of the audience was (in my case, anyway) palpable and added to the film.

    That’s a lot of money for controlling your environment.

    It’s kind of interesting, too, because the cinema is a bit of a middle ground for social interaction, I think. Most of the time is spent immersed in the movie, so I’m not even always aware of the people around me. It’s like part social and part isolated.

    I think you’ve come up with a topic that’s ripe for some research. I wonder if anyone has ever studied people who prefer home theater as a group as a function of social interaction preferences.

    Reply to this comment

    Lee says:

    In Australia we have a service called Gold Class in our main cinema chain. Essentially for two people you pay somewhere around $80 to $90 for huge chairs, only 15 other patrons and to your chair service.

    Almost every time we’ve used the service I’ve been disappointed, more often than not by my fellow patrons. Too drunk and too young often being the main problems though poor service has cropped up as well. The jump then to $100 is not that massive especially if you reserve it to control the experience of tent-pole films.

    The crowd is more detracting to my experience when watching something, I completely acknowledge that I may be in the minority for that but I find that people’s rudeness and stupidity encroaches upon my experience.

    I have though invited people to my house to watch a show or a dvd and quite enjoyed the experience, I know and trust the people I’m dealing with.
    Lee recently posted..Thoughts of a Storm Trooper part 63My Profile

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    Jeff says:

    I remember you talking about Gold Class before, but I’m not sure I knew the cost. You’re right, then, that it’s not that big a jump.

    It would be nice if the general public could be counted on for minimal politeness, though. But alas, people are broken.

    Reply to this comment

  • I read this, cold-hearted lurker that I am.

    I haven’t watched Turkle (and may not: time is precious, and I grapple enough with considering the value of online relationships without going all “meta” and watching something online about it!!), but I had watched the choir thing before now. It is an awesome thing, but you are right about the collaboration aspect. There would surely be a wow-factor associated with being part of something so big, but a person’s contribution surely is not affected by that person’s participation in the event (he/she may be affected but his/her actual contribution isn’t, except in making it in the first place). That’s the REALLY cool thing about being part of a REAL IRL choir: to change what I do to create something better in conjunction with others who are doing the same thing, a creation that occurs both in preparation AND in the very moment of performance, when, with luck, there is an audience as well.

    Lots of food for thought.

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    ha ha… thanks for de-lurking! :)

    The Turkle thing is very interesting, but as long as you agree with me we’re all cool.

    And I totally agree with everything you said.

    Reply to this comment

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