We are Most Certainly Not Being Careful

The New York Times recently ran an article on ways in which various technologies are being developed and tested with senior adults. The article talks about how aging can be isolating and lonely, and the fact that a shortage of caregivers is looming as the baby boom generation ages. These are among the reasons why researchers are developing technologies that allow seniors to connect with others, that assist them with daily tasks, and that even provide (or substitute for) companionship.

The article leaves out, however, any sense that there are questions to be asked about such companionship technologies, that there might be a need to evaluate how they fit into any larger notion of human flourishing. In fact, the article seems to take the development of these technologies as an unmitigated good: problem, technological solution, done.

What I’m trying to get at is a sense of what true human flourishing looks like as we age. What role is appropriate for technology to play in that? What is required of each of us with respect to our elders? Isn’t at least worth asking whether, by developing some of these technologies that mimic or substitute for companionship, we are simply abandoning people (to put it in rather stark terms)?

Someone who has raised and considered these questions is Sherry Turkle, the Director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. As a psychologist, she has done a great deal of study on the role of technology in our lives, and particularly on the role of technology as (substitute) companionship for the elderly.

Consider, for example, this summary of her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which comes from a review of her later book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:

Turkle’s previous book, “Alone ­Together,” was a damning report on human relationships in the digital age. By observing people’s interactions with robots, and by interviewing them about their computers and phones, she charted the ways in which new technologies render older values obsolete. When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real. Robots don’t care about people, but Turkle’s subjects were shockingly quick to settle for the feeling of being cared for and, similarly, to prefer the sense of community that social media deliver, because it comes without the hazards and commitments of a real-world community. In her interviews, again and again, Turkle observed a deep disappointment with human beings, who are flawed and forgetful, needy and unpredictable, in ways that machines are wired not to be.

Notably, Turkle is not quoted or even mentioned in the NYT article. When I tweeted about this absence this morning, the author of the NYT piece replied asking why it didn’t count that she had quoted Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at MIT. It’s not that it did or did not count, but rather that neither he nor anyone else in this article is raising these kinds of issues about the use and place of technology in or for companionship or caring.

These issues are essential to our thinking about how it is we best care for one another. And that is what the discipline of bioethics is ultimately about—how do we best care for one another, particularly in the face of disease and suffering, conditions that often accompany aging.

Yes, it can be difficult and awkward and unpredictable and even painful to care for one another—and, I would add, to allow ourselves to be cared for by others. But sometimes part of being human is doing things that are difficult and awkward and unpredictable and even painful. And when we hand that over to—or pass it off on—technology, we may just be handing over something that is in fact vital to true and full human flourishing, if we are not careful.

And we are most certainly not being careful about what we hand over to technology.

What role is appropriate for technology to play in the ways in which we care for one another? What is required of each of us with respect to each other? Are we allowing technology to substitute for human interaction in ways that are ultimately unhelpful and/or even unhealthy?

Similar questions about the place of technology in the larger scheme of life are also at stake in debates over human-animal hybrid or chimeric embryos, which I wrote about yesterday.

These are not easy questions, and I don’t pretend that there are easy answers. But they are questions that deserve to be asked, to be considered, to be held up the light of day and examined.


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