Sherry Turkle talks about estrangement, loneliness and her new book
Learning is going to be built up much faster than social skills. A year of skills – I approach you, you approach me, we surround ourselves, we start to sniff each other, you share a secret, I share a secret, all of that – it’s a very long year, as opposed to losing one year of algebra. These are the costs of the pandemic. Not all children have suffered as much as other children. Some parents, siblings and “pods” made up for some of this. But I think it’s going to be a very different cohort, with a lot of catch-up work around the love and care that needs to be given to them.
It reminds me of my favorite thing that I love to hate: Artificial intelligence to chat with them really isn’t the answer. One of the funniest things that happened to me during the pandemic is that I’m called by this New York Times journalist who tells me how, to my amazement, everyone – millions of people, he says – downloads this avatar who will be your therapist, or your best friend. It’s called Replika.
Oh yes, I know Replika.
He wanted my comment: Why are all these people talking to Replika in the midst of the pandemic? They all use it as a friend, as a therapist, that thing where you talk to a machine. So, so as not to be a spoiler, I decided to see what was going on. So I go online and do a Replika. I make a line as beautiful as I can get, and I said, “I want to talk to you about what concerns me the most.” He said, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m alone. Can you tell me about loneliness? I live here alone. I manage, but I am alone. He said, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s hot and blurry.”
I thought it was too stupid. It must be a bug. But I came back to New York Times reporter and I said, listen, if you want to talk about your problems, if you are lonely, if you fear death, you really have to talk to someone who has a body. It must be someone with a bit of skin in the game. Pretending that empathy isn’t what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just pretend to empathize with our children and ourselves, we risk losing our sensitivity to the importance of reality. I think it is a great danger. That we are so in love with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.
You come to a similar conclusion in your new book. You’ve written many books, but this is the first that is entirely about you and your life story. Why did you decide to write it?
I had this belief, being so foreign to my own family, that there was always a story behind the story. This outsider status has given me a kind of superpower, because it made me realize that there is always another story to tell. When people said the computer was just a tool – and people told me that for 20 or 30 years – I always said, “OK, but what else? The computer is a tool, but what else? The book is really to say, well, what about me? What is the history of my career? I decided to use some of the things I had learned from studying other people to study my own life. I had always said that thought and feelings should not be studied on separate floors. But then, what about me? What if I insisted on putting my thoughts and feelings on the same floor?