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Techno dystopia

Book>> Alone together • by Sherry Turkle • Basic Books • Rs 750

By Ketaki Nandy
Published: Monday 28 February 2011

Alone togetherWith social media stoking revolt against tyranny in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, it is difficult to be critical of virtual interactions.

But there is a group of writers who play devil’s advocate. Last year, journalist Nick Carr warned us of the socially numbing aspects of the Internet, and Evegeny Moro zov rebutted notions of the Internet as a harbinger of democracy.

Now UK sociologist Sherry Turkle writes, “real-world interactions are becoming onerous. Fleshand- blood people with their untidy impulses are unreliable, a source of stress, and are best organised through digital interfaces—Black- Berry, iPads and Facebook.”

The Internet, however, takes just a section in Alone Together. The first section deals with objects that imitate living beings. Sophisticated robots evoke emotional connections in scientists. Some feel pseudo-parental attachment and hate leaving them “alone” in labs at night.

According to Turkle, the difference between playing with a doll and playing with a robot is the difference between pretence and belief. Even when a replica behaves implausibly, we fill the gaps in its repertoire with imagined feelings. Turkle calls this “the Eliza effect”, after an experiment in intelligent software.

imageStudents were asked to converse with Eliza, probing its capacity to imitate human chat. Instead of exposing its weaknesses everyone pandered to its strengths.

Interviews in the second half show people start with an illusion that technology will give them control and end up being controlled. BlackBerrys, bought to manage e-mails, are usually the first objects of attention in the morning and the last be fore going to bed. Turkle int erviews teenagers morbidly afraid of phone. They find its immediacy and unp redictability upsetting. A phone call in real time requi res spontaneous performance; it’s live.

Ketaki Nandy teaches sociology at Calcutta University

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