Is technology at work taking the humanity out of our personal relationships?

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together talks about how workplace IT leads us to treat friends and family like emails.

Sherry Turkle

MIT's Sherry Turkle says we're using technology designed for efficiency to deal with intimacy
Photo: Peter Urban

Technology has revolutionised the way people work, turning individuals into highly efficient machines that can seamlessly process multiple conversations with people across the globe.

Workers are taught to make the most out of every minute of their day in a world where even a phone call is considered too time-consuming, while the advent of mobile email means being away from your desk no longer equates to being away from work.

Company productivity may be boosted by such practices but, according to Sherry Turkle, the consequences of applying such an attitude towards life outside the office could be damaging our personal relationships.

Turkle is a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and the author of Alone Together, a book examining the effects of technology on human relationships - which, she argues, we are increasingly treating like work.

Where people once used to phone each other, many now prefer to text, and in-person socialising has increasingly been replaced by time on social-networking websites. While Turkle is no technophobe - "I cherish the connections I can have through my email," she told - she feels we are replacing the humanity in our relationships with technology.

While it is often more efficient to send a quick email at work than to walk across the office and talk with a colleague, Turkle argues that this practice shouldn't be applied to communicating with friends, family and loved ones.

"We're taking technologies that were designed for efficiency and we're applying them to intimacy... We have let a technology of work come into our personal life. Messaging for recreation starts to feel like no recreation at all," she said.

As people conduct their social interactions through texts and emails, they begin to see their human relationships as a collection of messages to be "processed", according to Turkle, who quotes one individual interviewed as part of her research for Alone Together as saying: "I'm at the point where I'm processing my friends as though they were items of inventory... or clients." This attitude, she argues, is harming our ability to relate meaningfully with each other.

"It is sad to hear ourselves refer to letters from friends as 'to be handled' or 'gotten rid of', the language we use when talking about the garbage," Turkle writes.

"As a continuous stream of texts becomes a way of life, we may say less to each other because we imagine that what we say is almost already a throwaway."

In other words, by condensing the conversations that make up our relationships into quick emails and text messages, we may actually be...

...condensing our relationships themselves.

Mobile technology blurs boundaries

The advent of mobile technology has been a significant driver of the breakdown of boundaries between work and home, according to Turkle.

The fact that people are always online and always contactable has, she said, "changed the game" by bringing the online world into every part of people's lives.

"I thought it would work out that you would have your time with technology and your time with people," said Turkle, speaking about the positive outlook she took on technology's role in culture over 15 years ago in her previous book Life on the Screen.

However, "it's not like that", she says - a situation she attributes to the constant connectivity afforded through mobile devices.

"You're always able to bail out of your time with people because the technology is simultaneous, and that's what has changed."

Turkle believes people no longer feel they have to choose between interacting with a person in front of them and their online network as it has become socially acceptable for people to interrupt face-to-face conversations to answer an email, text or phone call.

"Mobile technology has made each of us 'pauseable'," Turkle writes.

smartphone in hand

Using a mobile device means we can be physically present in one location but have our attention elsewhere
Photo: Shutterstock

She believes a parent or a partner only has to glance down at their phone to become "lost to another place, often without realising that they have taken leave".

"We don't realise the attention we give our devices," she told "When you're reading your emails, you are simply not available in the same way - you're in a different world."

By being in two places at once, thanks to mobile technology, individuals may be physically present but emotionally not there.

When a person is distracted by their mobile, they are unable to provide the emotional support they might need to give to their friends or family, says Turkle, who cited the example of parents not giving enough attention to their children.

"It is the children who are telling me their parents are reading them Harry Potter in one hand and scrolling through their BlackBerry messages with the other. These are children complaining about their parents," she told

According to Turkle, the 'always on' mentality that mobile technology facilitates also has negative consequences for the person attached to the mobile device, as it has become increasingly difficult...

...for individuals to get away from work, even when on holiday.

"A vacation usually means working from someplace picturesque," Turkle writes in Alone Together, with workers expected to stay online because technology means they can.

"They cannot take a vacation without bringing the office with them; their office is on their cell phone."

Technology appeals to human weakness

Turkle believes we allow technology to have such an influence over our lives and come between our most important human relationships because it appeals to key human vulnerabilities.

"We are lonely but we are fearful of intimacy," Turkle writes. "Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."

The ability to be constantly in contact with a plethora of social and professional networks creates a sense of togetherness, but Turkle argues that in reality our desire to stay connected online can reduce our ability to connect in the real world.

Digital connections

Do electronic communications just provide the illusion of real relationships?
Photo: Shutterstock

When people go into their online world they may find it easier than facing reality, she said, adding: "We miss out on the difficulties but we also miss out on the joys of being with each other."

Mobile technology, for example, gives people the option to opt out of human relationships. At socially difficult moments, people can hide behind their smartphones, removing the expectations on them to interact.

"Technology is seductive, there is a temptation to go away into that zone," said Turkle, who believes this creates particular problems for young people as they can avoid difficult social situations that may help them develop the communication skills they need to succeed in the workplace and in future life.

"At a 15-year-old's birthday party, before Facebook, it was very hard because the 15-year-olds had to do something they didn't want to do - they had to talk to each other. The 15-year-olds would struggle, but then finally they do it - they are talking to each other. By the end of the party the 15-year-olds are closer to being 16," she said.

"Now, at a 15-year-old's party, they can get away with not talking to each other because they're all on Facebook. They've all sort of found a way to not have to be with each other."

"It's as simple as that," she added. "When something hard comes up we have found...

...a way to bail out and not have to be with each other."

While this ability to hide behind technology may make life easier in the short term, there comes a point when young people have to face up to the social world.

"You really can't hold a job down if you can't talk," Turkle said.

"For most jobs you have to be able to communicate, you have to be able to feel free and comfortable with people.

"You have to be able to not feel that you have to hide from people to be successful in most fields of endeavour," she added.

Hope for the future

Despite the ubiquitous nature of technology in Western society, Turkle believes there is potential for our relationship with technology to alter.

"I think the next big change won't be technology, but will be a change in the etiquette around technology," she said. "I think the next big steps in technology are going to be steps of social action rather than technological changes."

"I think we're going to start redefining our sacred spaces, where we are going to be with each other. I think people are going to start to say 'put it away'," Turkle added.

People need to think about how and when they use technology, not necessarily "stepping away from technology, but taking a step to the side", she told

Turkle argues that people must decide how far they are willing to let IT interfere with their human relationships, as technological advancement may in the future afford us new ways to replace meaningful in-person interactions with tech substitues and so further challenge our perceptions of what is acceptable.

"It's for us to decide - do I really want to leave my ageing mother with a robot that tells her it loves her?"

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