The New Together

One important role of a professional sociologist is to be the skeptic who grumbles, "Wait a minute, here. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." For example, it took Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer to point out that families' geographic mobility in the United States has been steadily declining over the last 100 years, contrary to the nearly universal belief that Americans now move about more than ever. Every so often, however, we sociologists do get to stand on a soapbox and shout out, "Look here! There is something new under the sun!" Fertility rates that have decreased so much as to cause population decline in many rich countries, if not for immigration, are one such soapbox moment. Women surpassing men in education levels (and reaching parity in formal employment numbers) qualifies as another such sociological landmark. And, of course, the rapid and almost complete penetration of mobile telecommunications and other microprocessing technology across the globe amounts to a breathtaking change.

Taken together, the Web, social media, cell phones, peer-based production models, and ubiquitous computing have created a new social landscape. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found, for example, that on average, children ages 8 to 18 now spend 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using electronic media. As technology advances, more of our gadgets talk to us, and kids learn to navigate among those gadgets from an increasingly tender age.

In Alone Together, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist Sherry Turkle argues -- as she has in her earlier books The Second Self and Life on the Screen -- that these new technologies rescript social relations between people (and between people and things). She tries to walk the fine line between technosocial ludditism and evangelicalism, arguing that sometimes social networking and mobile and robotics technologies serve to bring us together while at other times they drive us apart. Ultimately, she concludes -- as does the media -- technology theorist Clay Shirky -- that this is an unfinished process that future generations will have to work out.

Turkle is a gifted and imaginative writer who is at her best when talking about how developing kids and adolescents navigate the ever fluid world of online and offline electronics. But many of her most interesting claims in Alone Together just strike me as false. The first part of her book centers around an "emotional Turing test" she credits her colleague Freedom Baird of the MIT Media Lab with developing. The original Turing test was meant to test artificial intelligence by determining whether a computer algorithm could fool people into thinking they were interacting (through a keyboard) with a real person. In contrast, Baird's test, as related by Turkle, involves asking "under what conditions a creature is deemed alive enough for people to experience an ethical dilemma if it is distressed." Evidently, many people, particularly children, imbue "cute" talking gadgets like Furbies with souls that experience pain. For example, if the toys protest against being held upside down, eventually almost all folks relent from the stress of inflicting "pain."

Turkle spends the first part of her book relating interview data with kids of various ages as to how they perceive the vitality of their interactive toy creatures such as Tamagotchis. This is, I would argue, a case of where there is indeed nothing new under the sun. Kids have long imbued their anthropomorphized (or animalized) dolls and toys with a life force capable of imagined pain. At least as far back as the early 20th century, social psychologists such as George Herbert Mead argued that imitation and play of this sort were a key developmental step to acquiring the ability to empathize. Just because a cute toy is not "interactive," it does not mean that the children of the Great Depression imbued their cornhusk dolls with any less emotional content. Conversely, many children, as part of this learning process, torture animals (or other humans) to investigate the range of suffering that other creatures experience.

Turkle goes on to argue that these digital kids envision a vitality continuum -- animals and people are fully alive, but robotic or screen-based creatures are "sort of" alive. Again, there is no way to know -- short of archival analysis of old home movies or interviewing adults, whose memories of their childhood emotional life may be compromised by years of distance -- whether this idea of various states of aliveness is new. I kind of doubt it (and my long-worn teddy bear agrees).

Likewise, any young parent knows that her kid's emotional response when his Tamagotchi has just "died" is a pale comparison to the response when his hamster or dog has passed away. My skepticism aside, Turkle is a fun writer and pushes interesting arguments with an engaging style. Paradoxically, when she is on well-trod, safer ground later in the book, she is not as interesting or heterodox in her observations. For instance, in discussing the paradox of online sociality for teenagers as they try to navigate their identities, she observes that while the Internet allows for experimentation and novelty in trying on new identities, the traces left by that experimentation cannot be erased. This is neither new nor controversial. Ditto for the effects of college students communicating with their parents several times a day via text. I prefer the more provocative Turkle: Even if I don't agree with her that there is something new here, I enjoy arguing with her in the margins of the book.

By contrast, Joseph Michael Reagle Jr. is writing about something quite new in his book about the culture of Wikipedia, Good Faith Collaboration. While self-organizing, commons-based production has been around from time immemorial, the typical historical examples that come to mind involve tight-knit communities with strong social ties. Think an Amish barn-raising or a Quaker meeting. Headless organizations generally require a lot of social capital. So how does Wikipedia manage to function so well as an organic assemblage of strangers? This is the question that motivates Reagle. He claims that Wikipedia has its antecedents in Paul Otlet's 1895 invention, the Universal Repository, a collection of facts written on index cards to which clients could write to perform "analog" searches. He also claims as a forerunner H.G. Wells' proposal for a World Brain that relied on microfilm to create a free, universal encyclopedia. Both, Reagle points out, were inspired by new technologies. Wikipedia has not only realized these utopian dreams of a century past; it has surpassed them, Reagle argues, by opening itself to all willing producers as well as all interested readers.

Reagle does a great job documenting historically how Wikipedia developed and how it works: how conflicts are resolved; how some controls were needed to maintain the system of open collaboration; how leadership emerges organically; and how bureaucratization occurs. The documentation of Wikipedia's birth and development is a valuable scholarly achievement, but the book lacks a defining argument. Sociologists, political scientists, and economists have all struggled with the "collective action" problem that Wikipedia's peer-production model poses, but Reagle does not engage those larger questions.

Books that purport to describe our new social landscape keep coming these days. Some seek to become the handbook of the new epoch, the way that many classic works of sociology and economics captured central features of previous eras. Perhaps in our fragmented age, we need a lot of smaller books like histories of Wikipedia, Facebook, mobile banking, and so on. But I am still looking for one great work that will capture the essence of this ongoing transformation of social relations. Some years from now, I'm sure we'll all be talking about it -- but whether it will be a book or something else entirely remains to be seen. Maybe it will be a gadget and talk to us.