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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Our Robotic Moment: Turkle Says We Should Be Reframing the Questions about Technology and Our Humanity

by Susan Leem, associate producer

ASIMO the robot conducts
Humanoid robot ASIMO directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (photo by: Honda, Ars Electronica/Flickr)

"The options are given in the description of the situation. We can call this the package problem. In the real world, situations are not bundled together with options. In the real world, the act of framing — the act of describing a situation, and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made — is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development…In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

In her latest book Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle cites this passage from Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiment in Ethics to raise an important point about context and decision-making. She is concerned about the way we set up such important social questions, “quandaries” she calls them, such as: “Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?” A “robotic companion,” in fact, may not be the only solution or even a viable one to “lonely and bored.”

She wants to make sure we’ve considered moral issues not only when setting up a quandary, but also when responding to it. And as Appiah suggests, how you frame and respond to a quandary is a moral issue that is part of a person’s moral development and obligation. Turkle takes on this task by questioning how we think about our relationship with technology.

In our show this week (title "Alive Enough?"), Sherry Turkle asks how we can shape technology to serve human purposes and not the other way around. During one poignant moment of the interview, she tells a story about how children and others have reframed one of the most fundamental questions of reality, about recognizing “aliveness” and having a new kind of pragmatism about how alive something needs to be for its purpose.

galapagos turtleShe’s concerned that some may no longer care if we are among life, that life has somehow become irrelevant to a generation.

"By the time of the Darwin exhibit in 2006 I think, my daughter saw a Galapagos turtle which had been brought up from the islands, this was the life that Darwin saw. And she looks at this turtle…and she looks at me and she says, because this turtle is sleeping, she says ‘for what this turtle is doing, they could have just had a robot.’ And it struck me that from her point of view, the fact that it was alive mattered not at all.”

The package problem around technology is that most people simply want to ask whether it’s good or bad for us, and not how it changes us. How it changes us can be as complex and as fundamental as how we recognize life’s worth.

About the image: (lower right) A giant Galápagos tortoise on display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibition. The diorama was labeled with a “Live!” sticker. (photo: Andrew D. Miller/Flickr)


A Twitterscript with Sherry Turkle, Founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self

by Susan Leem, associate producer

MIT Professor Sherry TurkleFor 20 years Sherry Turkle has asked unusual questions about the human side of technology. She wants to know how our relationship with devices affects our psychology, and why it is that “we no longer care if we are among life.” She’s referring to our love of gadgets, robots, and the way we obsess over email and smart phones, ultimately giving them highest priority in our social interactions.

Professor Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Her latest book is Alone Together.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and posting here for those who weren’t able to follow along. Check out our Twitter stream next time at @BeingTweets.

  1. "There’s a phenomenon where people feel their phone ringings when they’re not. It’s called the phantom ring." - @STurkle 1:09 PM 22 Feb
  2. "Just because we grew up with the internet we think that the internet is all grown up." @STurkle 1:13 PM 22 Feb
  3. "I get very discouraged that we don’t seem to have a taste for stopping and asking how can we make this work for us?"-@STurkle on technology 1:14 PM 22 Feb
  4. "What is intimacy without privacy, what is democracy without privacy?" - @STurkle, author of “Alone Together” - http://bit.ly/cJxjOQ 1:16 PM 22 Feb
  5. "If you don’t teach your children how to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely."-saying in psychology via @STurkle 1:28 PM 22 Feb
  6. "You don’t want to be alone because you can’t think by yourself, you can’t feel by yourself." - @STurkle on growing up with texting, etc. 1:30 PM 22 Feb
  7. "It’s teenagers who say ‘My parents text at the dinner table.’" @STurkle on how children also want sacred spaces. 1:34 PM 22 Feb
  8. @STurkle on rules for adults to create sacred spaces in family- put down the phone at dinner, moment of school pickup and on the playground. 1:40 PM 22 Feb
  9. "The greatest gift you can give your child is to walk out of the house without your phone. Show your child what that looks like!" @STurkle 1:41 PM 22 Feb
  10. "We have to ask ourselves what is served by having an always on, always on you, open to anyone who wants to reach us, way of life."@STurkle 1:43 PM 22 Feb
  11. "I love uses of technology that are positive and hopeful and exciting." - Professor @STurkle author of “Alone Together.” 2:01 PM 22 Feb
  12. "In a human conversation I’m talking to another person who understands the arc of a human life cycle." -@STurkle  2:14 PM 22 Feb
  13. "I don’t need to be right, but I do need to feel as though people understand what I’m trying to communicate." -@STurkle on conversation. 2:16 PM 22 Feb
  14. "Whether or not we want robots caring for our elderly will be one of the most humanistic conversations we’re going to have." -@STurkle 2:17 PM 22 Feb
  15. "This is a corporation, it isn’t your mother, and I think people forget that." -@STurkle on Facebook 2:21 PM 22 Feb
  16. "There’s a whole kind of robotics that’s really going to change the way people see the world." -MIT professor @STurkle  2:23 PM 22 Feb

About the image: Sherry Turkle (photo: Peter Urban)