Looking for a Little Nuance

Link bait headline: “Is the Internet killing our ability to have a nuanced conversation about the Internet?”

I joined in for an STS Circle presentation by Sherry Turkle titled “The Dystopian Presented as the Utopian: Does the Internet Lead Us to Forget What We Know About Life?” It was a preview of her current work on how technologies are getting in the way of our ability to have conversations. Her main point was showing “how technology currently represents cultural images that used to be dystopian as utopian,” like this Facebook ad that celebrates checking out of a boring family conversation at the dinner table.

Turkle began acknowledging that her presentation was going to be gloomy based on her field interviews so far, and asked for people to get in touch with her to talk about how technology (for example, Twitter) was enabling rich, engaging conversation.

I didn’t get a chance to ask my question, because her non-answers to important questions about policy recommendations or political impacts of these shifts in communication were rambling. But I expect that my question wouldn’t have been well received.

I wanted to ask: “When we talk about technology and society in polarizing terms like utopias and dystopias, what nuance is lost at the outset?”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about nuance in the way we talk about and write about technology. What we have now is completely polarized. Technology is good for us, it’s bad for us. It’s doing things to us, and for better or worse. So even Turkle, an ethnographer and psychologist who I assume is interested in complicating things by uncovering the facts on the ground, still essentializes in terms of these dualistic extremes.

I realize that some of this inevitable polarization comes from the way we have to pitch things in the market, and that gets to part of Turkle’s point. Those in the business of selling ideas want the tweetable position statement: it’s good or bad. We have to choose sides, define our position, oppose each other, be one thing or the other. And I realize that Turkle (and Evgeny Morozov, too) would probably say that she has to take a strong side in order to get the conversation going when everyone around her is talking cheerleading for technology and progress.

But Turkle, though arguing for reclaiming conversation in this talk, is foreclosing any chance for nuance to the very conversation I think she’s trying to foster. She’s looking for the positive examples to round out all the negative one’s she’s already found. When we begin the conversation in terms of utopia v. dystopia, we don’t have any place to put something that’s more complicated than that.

It’s never that simple. I don’t think Turkle believes it is either. So is there room for a conversation about technology and society that has a little more nuance?

UPDATE: Adding this highly relevant XKCD that’s making the rounds today, since these kinds of headlines are killing the nuance.