Thursday, 5 June 2014

Alone Together: A Documentary about a book by Sherry Turkle


By Keurkoon Phoomwittaya, student in the MA in Social Media at the University of Westminster

Watch the video here: https://vimeo.com/90989359

In the early days of social interaction on the Internet I tried out different identities with avatars and used pseudonyms in virtual worlds. I learned and shared ideas in online forums that I was interested in such as Hamster Lovers society or the Thai fiction writers community. Nowadays, social media enterprises such as Facebook attract more people to spend their time on the platforms. At any time and on the move we can simulate ourselves to feel as if we were connected together and close with each other. The little mobile devices in our pockets shape and affect how we think about ourselves and relationships with others.

Because of my interest in such topics I became curious to read the book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” by Sherry Turkle. I made a documentary based on the issues that her book discuses. I am still optimistic about the abilities that technology poses for us in order to explore new ideas and innovations. But also, we need to know what cause constraints on human relationships.

Researchers have been looking at the potentials as well as problems of technology. In this documentary Sisse Siggaard Jensen, professor of Digital Communication at Roskilde University in Denmark, mentioned that when the computer was first invented people were amazed by its potential as a medium for communication. Later, the World Wide Web helped the world to be open for new ideas. Then, scholars came to study massive multiplayer online role-playing games and social media. Many see positive impacts when something is new. But, as time goes by they also observe problems that affect us. 

In the past, Turkle was optimistic about the potential of the Internet for trying out various identities. But now, with the popular use of social networking sites such as Facebook, she is concerned that the always-on status of our lives has resulted in isolation and individualisation. She says: “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” (Turkle 2011: xii). Her point convinced me that we need to know how the designs of different platforms affect our ability to reflect on ourselves and human relationships.

Jensen points out in the documentary that there are new opportunities for people to find possibilities for enjoyment and happiness in virtual worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft or EverQuest.  She sees them as spaces for developing resources and understandings with the help of social roles that are different from people’s ordinary lives. In virtual worlds like Second life people are not limited by their skin colour, gender or physical ability. Jensen et al. (2012) suggest that the ways people build virtual communities or experience extraordinary events through thought-provoking art installations hold the potential for creativity and inspirations (Jensen et al.,2012:3). Likewise, Howard Rheingold mentions in his book “Virtual Reality” that symbolic play is a positive act that draws cognition and culture together. “It’s a mental can-opener for liberating new ideas” (Rheingold 1992: 373). He suggests that imitating social roles through symbolic playing is important for everyone Rheingold 1992: 374). The Internet came with the promise that we could find opportunities to try out as well as enjoy making and exploring different virtual social spaces.

In the documentary, Jensen pinpoints that Facebook is a very limited world. The economy of "liking" posed by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a constraint for creativity. While some spaces on the Internet give us resources to play and learn about ourselves in relation to others, our personal information on Facebook became a raw material for private corporations making profits.

If you are wondering why it is important to know more about the ways in which technology affects our lives and how the designs of the online platforms matter, this documentary is for you. The ‘Alone Together’ Documentary (https://vimeo.com/90989359) will take you on a journey, on which you can learn more about the development of empathic skills holding together relationships through play and creativity, the relationship of computers and humans, and how we use technology throughout our lifetime.

References

Jensen,S.S., Philips, L., & Strand D.L. 2012. Virtual worlds as sites for social and cultural innovation. Convergence. 18 (3), 3-10
Rheingold, H. 1992. Virtual Reality. Great Britain: Mandarin Paperbacks.
Turkle, S. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each other. United States: Basic Books.

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