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The New Yorker: Sherry Turkle's Plugged in Year

The sociologist has critiqued our digital addictions. Now, like the rest of us, she’s been trapped behind her screens.

March 23, 2021

In the wild, orcas are a dominant species, apex predators that navigate a vast aquatic world in sophisticated family groups. But, as the neuroscientist Lori Marino has explained, they’re different in captivity. In the relative monotony of an artificial habitat, with their social development stifled by family separation and their wanderings limited to a concrete tank, orcas go a little mad. Their stress levels soar, their dorsal fins droop, their parenting skills decline; they get bored, they self-harm, they lash out. The cost of their confinement is a diminished internal existence.

Our pandemic isolation is voluntary, altruistic, and temporary. Still, after a year of social distancing, we might resemble lonely creatures drifting around in our tanks. Technology has allowed some of us to work, learn, shop, and socialize from home, exchanging the rough, natural edges of life for the smooth glass of our screens. We’ve come to inhabit the world that Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and psychologist who teaches at M.I.T., has described for decades—a world in which technology is “the architect of our intimacies.” Beginning with the publication of her first book on technology, “The Second Self,” in 1984, Turkle has chronicled our growing preference for expressing ourselves through devices, and gradually, with the rise of the Internet, the ease with which we confuse how individuals seem online with who they really are. Jonathan Franzen has described Turkle as “a realist among the fantasists, a humanist but not a Luddite: a grown-up.” Adults may have been tempted to assume she’s talking about Internet teen-agers; in truth, her arguments have always applied to the rest of us, too. Now, after four seasons of Zoom, we’re all living life on the screen.

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