Issue 8: February 6, 2013
Note: Some minor revisions to the printed version have been made for the blog.
Robo-Care: Coming Soon to a Nursing Home Near You
In her recent book, MIT professor Sherry Turkle asked individuals whether or not they would be willing to employ robots for the quintessentially human task of caring for the elderly. Some of the responses she records reveal an interesting contradiction. While people saw the benefit in “social” machines that would not complain, grow weary, or even “abuse the elderly like some humans do in convalescent care facilities,” they all expressed a desire to spend time with other humans, not robots, in their old age.
Perhaps such self-serving contradictions are common in human reasoning because empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of others, is not as natural an inclination as narcissism, an excessive love of one’s self. And according to a few recent studies (including Turkle’s), life in the digital age may not be bringing out the better angels of our nature. Psychologists are finding that the time spent plugged into social networks actually quench our capacity for empathy while fuelling the fires of narcissism. In order to unpack this argument, let’s examine a few problems that characterize membership in the world’s largest social network: Facebook.
Facebook: 1 Billion Members and 100 Billion Connections
Even if you are not actively using Facebook, there is a good chance you are familiar with the social network. Designed in a dorm room by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook recently announced its 1 billionth active member. This means that one out of every seven people on the planet is connected to Facebook. The stats don’t stop here. Over 500 million people login to Facebook through mobile devices. Every day, 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook’s servers and over 2.5 billion “likes” are attached to the content that adorns the wall space of users. Collectively, these users now share over 100 billion connections. Pretty impressive for a company that has not even been around for a decade.
In a number of ways community experienced on Facebook parallels other offline forms of community. Both require us to develop an identity. And both involve the establishment of connections and degrees of interaction with one another. However, what makes Facebook a distinct community, and arguably so seductive, is that in each of these arenas we are afforded a higher degree of freedom and control, without the nagging sense of responsibility, than is possible offline.
Online vs. Offline Identity
When you join Facebook the first order of business is to establish your identity. In the offline world many aspects of our identity are determined by experiences out of our control. Just think about what choices you had in your education, wealth, and social status as a child, for example. Additionally, we make mistakes in the offline world which can mar our identity in the eyes of others, as we face consequences and assume responsibility.
On Facebook you only needs an email address to create a profile page, and you are free to control the content you want people to associate with you, regardless of wealth or education. It is liberating to delete photos that cast you in a negative light, to post the articles you love reading, and to share status updates to let the world know how clever/witty/insightful you are. All these actions present a reflection (inevitably, a reduced one) of you.
Yet, Turkle notes the anxiety of this process for one high school student who admits:
“When you have to represent yourself on Facebook to convey to anyone who doesn’t know you what and who you are, it leads to a kind of obsession about minute details about yourself.” (184)
It is not wrong to be conscious of your Facebook identity. In fact, it is important to remain aware that your online actions can have offline consequences. Yet the words of the high school student reveal a truth about Facebook and the unhealthy fixation with ourselves that it generates. Constant self-editing rooted in narcissism, is addictive. And what if such digital navel gazing reveals a heart that desires others will want to see the world through our eyes? Isn’t this the exact opposite of empathy?
Online vs. Offline Connection and Interaction
Once you set up a Facebook profile, the next step is to establish connections and interact with other members. In the offline world we refer to connections as relationships. Our relationships take time to establish and grow, and require energy and commitment to last. Consider the sickness of a friend. It is out of your control, and it demands you give up some freedom in order to take responsibility and care for them. In other words, relationships require actively engaged empathy, or they soon break apart.
Conversely, in the world of Facebook, connections are established instantly by sending and receiving “friend requests.” The result is a broad base of “friends,” typically lacking the depth of an offline friendship. There is also a seductive element to controlling your community. With a few clicks I can ignore friend requests, delete dissenting opinions, or “un-friend” everyone who feels that it is necessary provide hourly photos and quotes of their children.
In the offline world, relationships require active engagement, but on Facebook we can treat friends with this passive narcissism, consuming their lives at our own liesure. According to psychologist Heinz Kohut, this “passive consumption,” encouraged (not created) on social networks, produces a different form of narcissism. This narcissism is characterized by a weak sense of self rather than an excessive love of self, where we turn others into “self-objects.” A self-object is an individual we connect to primarily because they compliment us, or prop up our sense of self, in the areas we feel weak. Controlling the fate of Facebook connections to last only as long as they continues to serve my interests means that social networking has become social narcissism.
Something to Consider
Facebook, or any other social network for that matter, does not create narcissism, and it certainly does not make empathy impossible. But if time spent in online community encourages the former and diminishes our capacity for the latter we must ask ourselves important questions moving forward. In what type of community do we want to belong? What does it mean to be actively engaged in relationships with others? What are the responsibilities that come with freedom in community? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed an AgeLab to deal with shortages in American nursing homes. Here engineers are creating robots that promise to take care of the “physical and emotional needs” of the elderly. Perhaps if we do not take the time to dis-connect from our devices and answer these questions, this will be the future we face.
Sources and Further Reading:
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Stephen Marche, Is Facebook Making us Lonely. The Atlantic, May 2012.
Christine Rosen, Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism. The New Atlantis, 2007.