Desiring a more fully embodied human existence in a digital culture…


Which is better, the hearty laugh of a friend over a cup of chai, or the “LOL” in a text from the same friend?  There is a difference!  


“Laughing-out-loud” could just be a distracted throw-away line.  And “rolling-on-the-floor-laughing” (ROFL) could be an exaggeration.  In some cases, either could mean that someone is laughing at you, not with you.  But, of course, both terms could be accurate statements of your friend’s amusement.


In any case, something is lost in computer-mediated communication (CMC).  And lots of folks, especially young people, are coming to this realization!  There is a difference “between someone laughing and someone writing that they’re laughing.”  The eighteen-year-old boy who made this observation added, “My friends are so used to giving their phones all the attention … they forget that people are still there to give attention to.”


This comment is representative of many heard by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle as she worked on her book, Alone Together.  Another student and his girlfriend decided to correspond through letters.


The letter, like, she wrote it, she took her time writing it, and you know it came from her.  The e-mail, it’s impersonal.  Same with a text message, it’s impersonal.  Anyone, by some chance got her e-mail address, they could’ve sent it.  The fact that you can touch it is really important. … E-mails get deleted, but letters get stored in a drawer.  It’s real; it’s tangible.  Online, you can’t touch the computer screen, but you can touch a letter.


Here are a few more comments Turkle received from students.


Brad says that digital life cheats people out of learning how to read a person’s face and ‘their nuances of feeling.’  And it cheats people out of what he calls ‘passively being yourself.’  It’s a curious locution.  I come to understand that he means it as shorthand for authenticity.  It refers to who you are when you are not ‘trying,’ not performing.


His classmate Miguel likes texting as a ‘place to hide,’ but to feel close to someone, you need a more spontaneous medium. … ‘If someone sends you a text message, you have a couple of minutes to think about what you’re going to say, whereas if you’re in a conversation, it’d be a little awkward if you didn’t say anything for two minutes. … That’s why I like calls.  I’d rather have someone be honest with you. … If you call, you’re putting yourself out there, but it is also better.’


At Fillmore [School], Grant says of when he used to text, ‘I end[ed] up feeling too lonely, just typing all day.’ … He says, ‘When someone sends you a text or IM, you don’t know how they’re saying something.  They could say something to you, and they could be joking, but they could be serious and you’re not really sure.


All of this indicates, at least for some, a desire to live in world that is more tangible, more physical—a desire for a more fully embodied human existence.  They are learning that digital technology takes as well as gives.  Turkle found that people who “devote large portions of their time to connecting online are more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives.”  Social networking can provide a place to hide; it can leave one feeling lonely; it can limit our ability to understand and relate to others.  The uses of digital connections are both limited and limiting.  And knowing the boundaries of each dimension is crucial.  


Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

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