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Originally published Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

Sherry Turkle's 'Alone Together': lonely in a world with 1,000 virtual distractions

MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle's new book "Alone Together" is a disturbing and powerful look at the way our hyper-connected world is affecting our ability to sustain attention and develop friendships and relationships. Turkle discusses her book Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sherry Turkle

The author of "Alone Together" will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together": Disturbing. Compelling. Powerful.

In today's "always on" world, where conversations too often consist of exchanges of oddly spelled cellphone texts or "tweets" of 140 characters or less, that brief opening line serves as a complete book review.

Recipients of that succinct message might vow to read the book — if they have the time. And therein lies the paradox of clinical psychologist and MIT professor Turkle's book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" (Basic Books, 378 pp. $28.95).

The "we" of its subtitle refers to readers who are bombarded by snippets of information from a multitude of connections and who feel lost when disconnected from their smartphones and laptops.

Constantly lured by social networks and drawn by the siren ringtone of incoming texts, they will be unable to read the book as it should be read: with reflection. They will be too involved with virtual "friends" to sit down and discuss Turkle's startling findings face to face with real ones.

Or, as Turkle would argue, perhaps not. Perhaps a stolen minute will be enough for them to discover themselves in one of her unsettling stories. Perhaps their discomfort will be enough for them to set the phone and computer aside and concentrate on what she seems to be telling them directly.

Turkle sees "Alone Together" as the culmination of a trilogy about computers and people, begun early in the era of personal computers, with her book "The Second Self."

She characterizes that 1984 book as "full of hope and optimism," but tempered that with concern that "some people found computers so compelling that they did not want to be separated from them." Her focus was on "how evocative computers fostered new reflection about the self."

In 1995, as the Internet was rising in prominence, Turkle's "Life on the Screen" examined "the erosion of boundaries between the real and virtual as [people] moved in and out of their lives on the screen." Again, she was generally positive, but she adds that her "optimism of 1984 had been challenged. I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called 'RL,' that is, real life."

"Alone Together" continues "the story of the digital culture ... with a focus on the young ... 'digital natives' growing up with cellphones and toys that love." Turkle now finds her natural optimism under siege as she reports her key finding: "These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time."

The book is organized into two parts. The first describes the evolution of social robots from toys to servants that behave as if they have emotions. The second focuses on the networked life. Every chapter is filled with chilling stories of people accepting second best: older adults making connections with robot caregivers instead of people; teens sharing their intimate secrets with strangers; families physically together while emotionally disconnected; people multi-tasking and sacrificing quality in a quest to do more; privacy carelessly cast aside while every online action is archived.

Yet in the end, Turkle declares herself to be "cautiously optimistic. We have seen young people try to reclaim personal privacy and each other's attention." Readers, overwhelmed by the gloomy details in the rest of the book, can only hope she is right. If so, the trilogy will have to expand to four titles, to explain how we relearned how to expect more of people and less of simulants, avatars and robots.

Fred Bortz is a physicist and author of 19 books for young readers including "Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence."

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