Do you feel more lonely after using your smart phone?

In a recently-posted TED talk, MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle explains why people who are constantly tethered to their smart phones feel so alone. She argues that loneliness in the age of social media has become far more crippling than ever before in history. But is she right that connectivity is driving us apart?

The Fantasy of the Smart Phone

The strongest and most brilliant part of Turkle's talk, based on her recent book Alone Together, is when she carefully breaks down the way that smart phones embody three potent human fantasies. First, they give us the illusion that we have complete control over where we direct our attention. We can always use them to tune out when something in the real world is boring or annoying us. Second, they make us feel like we can always be heard, because we can broadcast our thoughts via social media, texts, or email whenever we want. And third, they promise a life where we are never lonely because we are always in touch with "friends" and "events" online.

If you have ever wondered why people clutch their phones like absurdly tiny lifeboats that require constant upgrades, Turkle's analysis of phone-as-fantasy explains why. Sure, we need our phones for purely practical reasons. But our emotional attachment to them is way out of proportion to our daily needs. Our phones promise us control and fulfillment; they're like daydreams.

The Loneliness of Connectivity

Turkle wants to make a point that is even stronger than the one about our phones being fantasies. She goes on to argue that they're changing human identity by replacing the intimacy of face-to-face conversation with online connectedness. To somewhat simplify her argument, she says that social media have reversed the traditional flow chart of communication. In the past, people had feelings or ideas, and then shared them. Today, she believes that people "have feelings in order to share them." Her point seems to be that people used to have feelings in solitude, held onto them, and then talked about them. But today people have feelings and communicate them at the same time. There is no moment to take a breather in between the feeling or idea and the conversation about it.

This is terrible, according to Turkle, because people associate having feelings with sharing them. And that means we all become each other's emotional crutches. We can't cross the street without checking in on FourSquare and telling everybody how we feel about it. Most importantly, Turkle believes, these new shared selves we're forming are more vulnerable than ever to loneliness. If you need to be "connected" in order to feel anything, how will you cope with being alone? You can't even function as a unified, emotionally balanced person. We become addicted to social media because we use them just to feel like normal people.

Against the Social Organism

Though she raises good points, we need to question Turkle's analysis of what smart phones are doing to our minds and psyches. First of all, her argument rests on a basic contradiction. Turkle claims that being connected via smart phone is not the same thing as having conversations, or genuine exchanges with other people. At the same time, she argues that being connected online allows us to invite other people so deeply into our minds that we have a hard time thinking or emoting without them.

What this kind of contradiction suggests to me is that Turkle fears what biologists would call the "social organism," which refers to creatures like bees whose survival depends working with each other as a unified whole. A single bee cannot live on its own. Though humans are not a fully social organism, we cannot survive in solitude either. We depend on adults to take care of us for the first few years of our lives, and as adults we depend on each other for everything from food and medical care, to shelter and defense. Humans may not have a hive mind, but we are profoundly social animals and to pretend otherwise is to court disaster.

I believe that our social media reflect not just a fantasy, but also the reality of how much we depend on each other for well being. They also reflect the reality of human selfhood, which we build only by knowing other people. In fact, we wouldn't even know what a sense of "self" is without seeing other people being "selves" and imitating it. This is one reason why making a decision often feels like listening to a cacophony of competing voices in our heads. As we mull over one choice or another, we imagine what friends, family, and even fictional characters might say about our potential decisions.

And yet Turkle seems to suggest that we are only truly ourselves when we are individuals, in solitude, cut off from human interaction. Certainly she wants us to share who we are in conversations, but she cautions strongly against the idea that we become ourselves in conversation. This is where she gets it wrong. While solitude is healthy for any number of reasons, it isn't because we're gaining a sense of self. If anything, solitude gives us a fresh perspective on our positions within the social world.

Looked at in this way, you could argue that smart phones unmask the social connections that make up the fabric of our beings. Our technology is making us poignantly aware of a loneliness that has been with us all along.

My Robot Society Is Real

In the mid-1990s, Turkle wrote an influential book called Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. There, she argued that the relationships people formed online could be as real and vital as ones in real life. Today, she says, these same kinds of relationships are more like connections with robots. The difference? Yesterday's online relationships were ones we "unplugged" from to seek out that self-building solitude. But now, we remain tethered to those connections all the time.

Why does carrying your social world with you all the time reduce the people in it to mechanisms rather than humans? It seems that every era produces a critique of the young which includes a finger wag over their increasingly meaningless connections to one other. You heard this in the 1970s, when casual sex was supposedly destroying people's ability to relate to each other. You heard it in the 1890s, when the popularity of leaving one's family to go off to college was supposedly creating a generation of unfeeling drifters. One of the ways that generation gaps form, repeatedly, is in conflicts over how people of different ages define relationships.

And yet what this underscores is that every generation cares deeply about human relationships. They are central to our lives. Our grandparents met in bars. Today, we meet on Facebook or Grindr or whatever other app you're poking right now. The problem comes when we confuse fake relationships with the real thing, as Turkle rightly points out when she explains the fantasy of smart phones. But that kind of confusion can happen in a face-to-face conversation as often as it does on Twitter. Superficial relationships are hardly unique to the 2010s.

I know that I'm going to be lonely sometimes, no matter what happens. But I would rather live in a world where I can build my identity out of connections, not solitude. That is what makes me human.

Photograph by Stanislav Komogorov/Shutterstock