How to Practice Being Human: An Interview With Dr. Sherry Turkle

Part of the I, ROBOT series

Our problem isn’t that Artificial Intelligence is getting better at being human, it’s that human beings are getting worse at it.

That’s one of the conclusions that MIT psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has been studying the psychological impact of technology on its users since the dawn of the internet. One of the foremost researchers on the “soft side” of technology, her early work was optimistic about the power of the internet to enable healthy personal and cultural experimentation.

Her recent work is still optimistic, though it comes with a very significant “but.” We cannot be passively accepting of our new technologies: that way lies madness and ruin, or at least verifiable misery.

Instead she says that the challenge of our new technology is not just to manage it better, but to practice being human the face of it. In an interview with Burning Man’s Philosophical Center, she came up with a list of ways to do that:

  • Affirm that yes, your “self” and your data do matter and are worth protecting and supporting
  • Practice having conversations with other human beings
  • Embrace the imperfections of everyday life, rather than trying to make everything seamless
  • Practice showing vulnerability to other people
  • Cultivate non-transactional relationships, where you expect nothing (not even a “like” or a “follow”) from the people you want in your life
  • Expose yourself to perspectives you disagree with

The better we’re able to do these things, the more our humanity can blossom in a digital age and the benefits of our technology outweigh the drawbacks. But if we lose the ability to do these things, if we replace them a digital life, then our humanity atrophies. Because the advantages of a a digital life — convenience, the ability to cocoon oneself, to curate an image of oneself and only interact with the curated images of other selves — turns out to be corrosive in high doses.

“We preach authenticity and in fact online we are living a curated life,” Dr. Turkle says, and technology’s not going to solve that problem for us. We have to practice if we’re going to get it right.

Sherry Turkle’s books include Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet; Simulation and its Discontents; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Hear our conversation in this Philosophical Center podcast.


Cover Image: “Dopascreens” by Wesley Chen, photo by Trina Medina

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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