Book Review of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

The main goal of the book, Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, is to make society aware of the effects that technology is having on us as human beings, from a social perspective. Since the development of computer technology, people's reactions to a machine, specifically robots, being alive or dead has changed. It is common knowledge that robots are non-living things, but when we consider the social aspects of our interaction with them, our behavior toward them unconsciously changes to treating them as though they were alive. It was found that the more "human" characteristics and responses we implement into their design, the more we conceive robots to be real and less non-living. (Turkle, 2011, p.26) The author then raises the question of whether or not this may be a concern to us because we do not know how this could affect our social existence in the future. The author then poses the question of how this differs across generations, and its effect on those who were born in today's era where computer technology is an ubiquitous part of everyday living.


One strength of this book is that it raises a unique concern about our interaction with things that can emulate life-like social behaviors, and analyzes our responses toward them. For example, the author researched the interaction of children of different ages (4-16) with the robotic toys Furby and AIBO. She gave the toys to the children to keep and interact with over a given period of time. In all cases she studied, there were varying levels of emotional attachment to the toy, and because of that emotional attachment, the children were less likely to replace their toy with an identical one if it broke or stopped working. This mostly occurred with younger children, but was found to be true with some teens as well. I myself have experienced this feat. While in high school, I had a Tomagachi and I took really good care of it until it turned 16 and died. I do not remember being upset by this, and I reset the Tomagachi.  Soon I became very reluctant to care for it in the same way I did the first. Eventually it just died of neglect. What was very surprising was that even as children got older and their understanding of what is dead and alive became more defined, they still reacted to the toys as though they were actual living beings.  Some discussions with students revealed that they thought it was possible robots can one day replace a real person, such as a babysitter or even a teacher!

Another strength of the book is taking a look at how we have incorporated robots into our social interactions, using them to fulfill our social needs. The author takes a look at the use of things like Paro the robo seal, designed to keep the elderly company. Paro has been very successful in Japan where it was introduced. After looking at the research done on the introduction of Paro, it appeared that the elderly really enjoyed interacting with the toy. But a closer look after speaking to those who had the robot seal, it was found that the elderly wanted them not for the actual toy itself, but for the  company of the research assistants who brought the toys. The elderly preferred to have the company of a real person as opposed to a non-living robot pet. Here I think this is a generational thing. I personally do not have an affinity for these more realistic robot pets because I did not grow up interacting with this technology. But for children growing up in an environment where they are exposed to robots from their very birth, this can have a profoundly different effect on their social behavior and their perception of what is alive.

The author also briefly highlights on sexbots, and having this sort of robot alternative for those who have intimacy issues. Adults who cannot find a mate for whatever reason, now have the option of interacting with "someone" who can satisfy and address their personal needs.

One last interesting strength of the book is that it takes a look at the idea of how our interaction with robots can stimulate negative behaviors. The robot doll, My Real Baby, is supposed to replicate the behaviors and characteristics of a baby. It was found that when the doll was given the ability to react to abuse, it was more likely to be abused, so the manufacturers turned off sensitivity to reduce sadism in children. (Turkle, 2011, pg. 47)


One of the weaknesses of this book is that it lacks cultural, ethnicity and class differentiation. The book does not really address how someone from a lower social class might interact with the robot toys as opposed to someone from a higher class. Also, the same can be asked from a cultural perspective. The author only discussed Paro in Japan, but what about other countries around the world? How do people from other cultures interact with these life-like robots, and is the interaction significantly different across cultures? These are some of the questions that the book failed to address.

Another weakness of the book is that it is in two parts, but the author does not really connect the two. The first half of the book deals with social interactions of robotic devices, and the second half of the book discusses our increasing dependence on the Internet and the technologies associated with it. The second half of the book discusses the social development of anxiety, depression and addictive/obsessive behaviors that develop from being in constant communication with cell phones, along with using social networking sites such as Facebook. Separating the two halves was a great idea, but the author should have done a better job of reconciling the two at the end.   


The major implication of this book is that if we do not pay attention to our increasing interdependence on technology in a social sense, we might lose part of our individual identity and more important, our humanity. Relying too much on non-human, emotionless technology to fulfill certain socio-emotional needs can possibly have a detrimental effect on us as a society. This is very important in terms of not only science education, but education in general, because the students at a middle and high school level are going through many physical and emotional developmental changes which will affect how they learn. These ideas brought forth by the author are relevant because, they illustrate the competition that teachers are up against when trying to communicate with their students. Teachers are constantly competing with technology for the attention of their students.  

Application in Teaching

Based on what I learned in this book, as a future teacher, I would try to have a balance between the use of technology in the classroom so that students can access social networking in a productive manner. I would probably create an online web classroom so that students will get rewarded for spending their time learning content that would help them succeed. I would also try to incorporate a lot of group work in the classroom to boost face-to-face interactions so that students can engage in traditional methods of communication, and not lose their social skills.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. New York, NY: Basic Books.