Why One MIT Professor Thinks Smartphones Could Destroy Our Sense of Self

We’ve witnessed it too often: at lunch a colleague prevents discussion by constantly checking their iPhone. Parents distract attention-seeking children by passing them an iPad rather than actually engaging them.

At Ford’s 2013 trends conference in Dearborn, Michigan this week, MIT professor Sherry Turkle warned that people are “content to be alone, together.” An increased disconnection from true social interaction is beginning to reveal unattractive realities.

Through her research Turkle found that people’s incessant need to always be connected to smartphones separates them from one other. It encourages them to enjoy the company of others only in their own prescribed amounts. At the deepest level this prevents intimacy, solitude and self-discovery.

“This is all part of a move from conversation to mere connection, and it comes with a certain loss,” said Turkle, a long-time professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. “Diminished or distracted conversations are lost opportunities to learn the skills of self-reflection. For children growing up this is the bedrock of development.”

Ford’s choice to have an antagonistic speaker at their annual “Further with Ford” trends conference signaled a willingness to foster meaningful discussion on the future of technology. The automotive giant kicked off the three-day conference on Monday night and featured panel discussions on topics such as the innovative disruption of the auto industry, global sustainability, and future trends in design and ethics in the marketplace.

Turkle, 65, is a celebrated psychologist who once graced the cover of Wired Magazine and was formerly the “poster child for digital identity.” She published several books such as “The Second Self,” “Life on the Screen” and 2011’s well-received “Alone Together.” She also gave a Ted Talk in February 2012 called “Connected, But Alone?” examining how devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication.

A longtime supporter of the capacity of early Internet to form “identity workshops” (people using their computers as extensions of themselves), Turkle’s turning point occurred over the past years, coinciding with the emergence of smartphones. She called her ideological transition “a very dramatic and a very wretched process from me.”  

“As the boundary between self and machine becomes thinner and thinner, we’re really never not with our device and that is the sense in which I become concerned,” said Turkle. “People can’t concentrate on being with each other because their attentions are always on all the other places they can be. They literally can’t hold the conversation with the person they’re with.”

Some of her most striking findings involve how people feel the need to be connected all the time, controlling their levels of attention. One 16-year-old explained to Turkle a preference for texting, lamenting that talking, “takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” 

In her research she found that when smartphones were present, not only did people drop in and out of conversations, rarely registering more than the gist of it, but the quality of conversation changed.

The greater problem is that we set ourselves up for isolation. According to the psychologist, the moment people are alone even for a few seconds they become anxious, they fidget and inevitably reach for their phone. As they do, constant connection shapes a new sensibility. Turkle calls it “I share therefore I am.” People don’t feel like themselves unless they’re sharing that latest trip to the gym and as a result, they forget the need to separate and lose a desire for solitude. “When this happens you’re not able to appreciate really who that other person is. Its like you’re using them as a spare part to support your fragile self,” she said.

Turkle urged the crowd to consider the implications of this growing reliance on smartphones. She foresees one day where an iPhone will help people avoid ex-boyfriends or girlfriends via the ‘Internet of things’.

“Who said a life without conflict and without dealing with the past is so good?” asked Turkle. “And that’s a trend, the idea that just because technology can help us solve the problem means that it was a problem in the first place.

Of course there will always be people who consciously decide to not bring their smartphone to dinner with a friend. Turkle is not so confident, pointing out that not everyone is capable of turning the gadgets off. The real test is future generations.

As she hit her final few points Turkle turned to parenting, expressing a desire for kids to develop while “playing in dirt rather than playing on an iPad.” Sadly the message may not have resonated with the crowd. One tweet sent by a blogger adequately sums it up: