This was the last in the Out of This World series of talks held by the British Library in London, tying into their science-fiction exhibition of the same name. ‘The Age of Entanglement: are we too intertwined with technology?’ was chaired by John Naughton, the Observer’s technology columnist, and aimed to consider the following questions. Are we too dependent on our technologies, or are they the key to a bright future? Are we subjugated or emancipated by them? The Guardian’s games writer and BBC broadcaster Aleks Krotoski, technology writer and MIT academic Sherry Turkle, and UCL professor Nick Tyler led a spirited debate. But with such a self-selecting criteria, these questions were never going to be addressed from both sides. Everyone in that room believed that technology is a good thing.
This aside, Krotoski was good on how the age-old need to fit in applies to our use of modern technology: “The new wave of web technology explicitly encourages us to articulate who’s part of our gang, and who isn’t. We follow on Twitter people who we know, or who we like, or people who we wish to be seen to be like. The flow of information [produced] makes us feel that we belong to a group.”
She also highlighted a much-discussed topic on the internet at present: how much we are seeing the loss of serendipity as search engines become more intelligent. “Every time we get a good recommendation from Amazon, a little piece of diversity dies. The world wide web is a filter bubble. Technology reduces us to databases of behaviours. The more we rely on the machine to dictate what we should attend to, based on Twitter or email, the greater our personal responsibility is to reach away from the machine to interact with people and ideas that we don’t agree with.”
Turkle spoke eloquently, from decades of thought and research, on how technology affects our ability to communicate. “We can’t get enough of each other, if we can have each other at a distance – in amounts we can control. The ability to hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other.”
We’re too busy communicating to connect with each other in ways that matter, though, she argued. And we are also losing our ability to copy by ourselves. “Today’s young people grow up with the fantasy that in some sense, they’ll never have to be alone. With a mobile phone in hand, there’s always a parent on tap. Feeling a little bit alone, and stranded, in adolescence, used to be considered a step towards being comfortable with autonomy. Things have moved from ‘I have a feeling, I’ll make a call’ to ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text’. What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone, to gather oneself. There’s a great psychological truth: if we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.”
The internet, Turkle argues, has developed to the point where we can now set some boundaries: “Some things have gone amiss, and it’s time to make some corrections.” Privacy levels need to be decided, and it’s okay to set the kitchen as a sacred space, where texting does not happen and family bonding does. It’s okay to say that texting at funerals is inappropriate; just as the part played by technology in Egypt’s revolution is good. “It’s time to have those necessary conversations,” she concluded. It will be interesting to see how our expectations of the part technology plays in our lives shift over the coming decades.