A few months ago, I read an article by Sherry Turkle in the Utne Reader (reprinted from the original article in The New Scientist, “Living Online: I’ll have to ask my friends”) that has been haunting me ever since. I keep bringing it up with friends and aquaintences in order to test her theory by testing their reactions.
In my retelling of Turkle’s theory, I explain it to my friends like this (I am fully aware that I may be twisting it around each time I tell it): A common “normal” way for humans to interact, share emotion, and bond is for them to a) experience an emotion and then b) share that experience with someone. However, in the age of online chat, Skype, blackberries, and cell phone messaging this is getting flipped—people are starting to log on in order to feel emotions. They are effectively looking online to find people and experience emotions.
Now, most of my friends find this formulation intriguing. But many rebut: Isn’t this what we do when we go out to a bar on a Friday night? Or when we call up a friend on the phone? Doesn’t that argument underestimate the real emotional bonds people create over continents using technology?
The question raised here, of course, is whether we are using technology, or technology is using us. (Turkle has also written a lot on the rise of artificial intelligence and its impact on the human psychology.) I really think that there is something there. It’s not so black and white, of course. Teenagers seem to exhibit this kind of behavior even in the non-technological world, regularly pinging their friends just to see what’s up, to gossip, to get vicarious experience. I think we all are still teenagers at heart; technology just brings it out in us. But what is the difference between getting dressed up to go out to a club on a Friday night and logging in to SL or WoW? Between picking up the phone to call your friend and checking to see if they are on Skype?