On Straw Men and Blogs

I’ve been engaged by Mathew Ingram at GigaOm recently. He’s had a couple of great pieces this past week. But he also wrote one I’m not so fond of. In this piece, he argues against Turkle and others that suggest that the technologies that we use have shaped our behaviors in ways that disconnect us from others (that’s more nuanced than he puts it, though).

What bothers me is not his opposition to something I tend to agree with. I work in the area of social ethics, so I get paid to disagree with people. No biggie. Rather, it’s the argumentation he uses. He does three things that bother me:

  1. He repeatedly notes the people he agrees with as having research to back up their position. Yet, he does not say the same thing for those whose views he opposes. He neglects to note that Turkle’s conclusions in Alone Together are based on about two decades of stright-up clinical psych research. The book has about forty pages of notes.
  2. He sets up all tech critics as being cut from the same cloth. Some do work that is backed up by research, others not. There is fear mongering, to be sure, but there is also peer reviewed research that undermines the “all is rosy” view of technology. Turkle’s work on tech has been nuanced for a couple of decades. It is a long way from The Shallows. Tarring demonstrably different authors with the same brush makes smacks of mob action, not reasoned reflection. He suggests that Turkle sets up straw men. He does, too.
  3. Ingram has a pretty thin view of the relationship between identity and behavior. He suggests, drawing on Shirky and Pinker, that “the Internet doesn’t really do anything to us, apart from reinforcing habits or behavior patterns that we may already have.” In doing so, he contradicts a couple thousand years of reflection on the idea of habits and virtues that argue that our behaviors can be shaped, both intentionally and unintentionally. Our actions don’t simply issue forth from some complete human being somewhere inside. Our actions also make us who we are. It is cyclical. There are things I simply could not have done 15 years ago. To argue that doing them doesn’t change who we are seems to ignore lots of people’s experience. Additionally, for kids growing up with the net, there are no “behavior patterns that [they] may already have.” They are internet from the start.

If Turkle’s editorial suffers, it is from missing some of the nuance of the book because of a word limit. The book is full of nuance. It is unfortunate that Ingram didn’t engage her nuanced account more deeply. It might have helped him with the nuance of his own argument.


Update: A solid, balanced story by Dave Copeland at ReadWriteWeb that notes research and anecdotal evidence in support of Turkle’s position.  I won’t even link to the abysmal story at Techdirt, where the author seems to have neither read Turkle’s article, nor any of her books.  Nothing worse than normalizing one’s own experience to throw off my appetite.


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