Technology: Tool for Therapeutic Connection, or a Hindrance?

Psychologist Sherry Turkle on the Impact of Virtual Intimacy

Richard Simon and Mary Sykes Wylie

In our high-tech, computer-obsessed age, author Sherry Turkle's key mission has become to unravel "how our increasingly intimate relationship with technology...changes the way we see ourselves as people. It isn't so much what technology is doing for us, but what it's doing to us." More and more, as Turkle sees it, we're the machine, and the machine is us.

Few would want to return to the primitive B.C. era (before computer): our electronic stuff is just too useful, too pleasurable, too seductive. But that seductiveness incurs significant costs, which we've barely begun to appreciate.

In her books, particularly The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1985), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle has ventured into the deep heart of what she calls "a forbidden experiment, using ourselves as subjects with no controls." Although hundreds of millions of people in all parts of the globe are taking part in this experiment, they're largely unwitting participants.

In graduate school at Harvard, Turkle studied sociology and personality psychology. She'd go on to do clinical coursework and internships and become licensed as a clinical psychologist. By the time Turkle began teaching psychology at MIT, computers were of course a large part of the scene and her colleagues were already using computer metaphors ("bits," "bytes," "programming," "clearing buffer," "bugging") to talk about the human mind.

By the mid-'90s, the computer was both "opaque" and interactive: you couldn't see beyond its screen face into its "brain," and you couldn't understand how to manipulate it to do your bidding, but you could respond to the programs already there, and they could respond to you. These devices had begun to look and act less like machines than "real" people.

But while the possibilities for creating new identities---many different identities at once, each with distinct names, faces, bodies, back-stories---were endlessly seductive and engaging (not to mention time-consuming), the process could sometimes spin out of control.

Robots, many apparently feel, are often even better than people---more accessible, dependable, reassuring, and friendly; never demanding, judgmental, or argumentative---and they don't die. So, many of us are beginning to wonder, what impact will this, or any of our deepening infatuations with all things cyber, have on our ability to connect face-to-face with each other, in real time? Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?

In the interview that follows with Networker editor Rich Simon, Turkle addresses questions like these that are increasingly being raised as we collectively wonder just exactly what we've wrought in the Digital Age.

PN: So where do therapists fit into all this?

ST: Part of my mission is to ask therapists to think about how the Internet and the other new communication technologies are impacting all of us. I want them to explore with their clients, particularly their adolescent clients, what they're doing online. And I think that's beginning to happen today. Just as no psychotherapist would be comfortable not knowing about a patient's family relationships, today, therapists are starting to ask about their patients' relationship with the online world.

PN: You say that your goal in writing Alone Together was to start a conversation about the impact of technology on our lives. In your mind, what role do psychotherapists play in having that kind of national conversation?

ST: First of all, if you're seeing kids in therapy, have them bring in their laptops and talk to you about how they use the web. Let them be your guide. Many kids have websites. Ask to see them. Have the children show you their avatars, if they're willing. What exactly are their avatars doing? What does that mean? Give it a rest with the blocks and the houses; go on Second Life with the child. Bring as much of this online life as you can into the consulting room. That's the first thing.

PN: So, you're saying to therapists: Begin with curiosity. Let your clients talk to you about the role technology plays in their lives.

ST: Right. Listen when the couples in therapy with you mention that they're not talking directly with each other. Ask how they actually spend their time together. What happens during dinner? Do they text each other instead of talking---you'd be surprised how many people do that. So I'll say, "Oh, you text each other. How is that working out?" Then I might start talking about the difference between communication and connection. Because that's what people are doing; they're texting each other in a relationship.

I think therapists are in a good position to be in the forefront of negotiating our relationship with technology. As therapists, we know a little bit about narcissism, in whatever professional language you use. You know that when people treat other people as though they're things, there's trouble! But we live in a technological world that's often set up so we treat each other like things. It's as if we need a package warning for technology that says, "Beware of treating people like things."

This blog is excerpted from “Cyberspaced". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Children/Adolescents | Couples

Tags: ethical issues | clinical psychologist | conversation | family | intimacy | kids | narcissism | psychologist | psychology | psychotherapist | psychotherapists | relationships | talking | technology | therapists | therapy

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