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Where people once used to phone each other, many now prefer to text, and in-person socialising has increasingly been replaced by time on social-networking websites.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...