In Turkle’s latest book, “Alone Together,” this optimism is long gone. If the Internet of 1995 was a postmodern playhouse, allowing individuals to engage in unbridled expression, Turkle describes it today as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch. She summarizes her new view of things with typical eloquence: “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
I certainly don’t expect Turkle to have all the answers, but her ethnographic portraits would have benefited from a more probing investigation of such questions. The teenagers she quotes complain about everything — phones, texting, e-mail, Skype. And yet, virtually none of them seem willing to turn off the digital spigot.
A 2007 study at Michigan State University involving 800 undergraduates, for instance, found that Facebook users had more social capital than abstainers, and that the site increased measures of “psychological well-being,” especially in those suffering from low self-esteem.
One recurring theme to emerge from much of this research is that most people, at least so far, are primarily using the online world to enhance their offline relationships, not supplant them.
In the end, it’s just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.