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Sherry Turkle: ‘The pandemic has shown us that people need relationships’ | Psychology

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Sherry Turkle, 72, is professor of the social studies of science and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was one of the first academics to examine the impact of technology on human psychology and society. She has published a series of acclaimed books: her latest, The Empathy Diaries, is an enthralling memoir taking in her time growing up in Brooklyn, her thorny family background, studying in Paris and at Harvard, and her academic career.

It’s quite unusual for an academic to put themselves central to the story. What was your motivation for writing a memoir?
I see the memoir as part of a trilogy. I wrote a book called Alone Together in which I diagnose a problem that technology was creating a stumbling block to empathy – we are always distracted, always elsewhere. Then I wrote a book called Reclaiming Conversation, which was to say here’s a path forward to reclaiming that attention through a very old human means, which is giving one another our full attention and talking. I see this book as putting into practice a conversation with myself of the most intimate nature to share what you can learn about your history, about increasing your compassion for yourself and your ability to be empathic with others.

I also wanted to write this book because I’ve wanted to read this kind of book. That is to say a book where you learn about the backstory of somebody whose work life has truly been animated by the personal story. Many people have this book to write but daren’t because they think their work life should be pristine, that it should come from a purely cognitive place. And I knew that in my case, that wasn’t true.

So is there an academic whose yet unwritten memoir you’d like to read?
I’m not going to tell you who I think has an interesting backstory, but I admire the work of Oliver Sacks. In his book Uncle Tungsten he shows how chemistry saved his life after he was so damaged by the war. The periodic table helped him organise his thoughts.

My deepest concerns really come out of my own story. I felt that not enough people are saying: my personal life and my profession are really mixed together and that’s what makes my professional life rich. I wanted to say that. There’s nothing in my personal life that I’m ashamed of. I’ve made mistakes that had false starts, but there’s nothing in this book that I disown.

In The Empathy Diaries you often write about putting yourself in the shoes of someone whose behaviour has been troubling in an attempt to understand their point of view. When did you become conscious you had that kind of capacity?
Before empathy was a virtue for me, it was a survival mechanism. That’s because my family was trying to embed me in a tissue of lies. And I knew for my sanity, I had to have a little bit of distance. The periodic table wasn’t going to do it for me – I was trying to find peace in the world by putting myself in other people’s shoes.

One of these lies is explained after your mother died of cancer. You find out that she divorced your father because when you were very young he was conducting psychological experiments on you. How did that feel when you found that out?
I don’t remember anything about the experiments, but when I found out about them in my late 20s, a remarkable thing happened. Which is that years after her death, I had a reconciliation with my mother. Because I’d been so angry that she had taken my father away from me. And now I realised that she had saved me. That was really a moment of great tenderness and empathy towards her because I understood for the first time that she did what she did with great love, empathy and compassion. As a child, I would have had no way of knowing this.

Eventually you tracked down your father.
When I met him I was able to give up the fantasy of him. So I was able to realise that’s done now and you can stop turning him into Prince Charming – he was a flawed guy. There was a deep shift as I reconciled with my mother because although I loved her, I had showed her little cruelties – cruelties that darted out because I was so angry at her for depriving me of this father.

When you were researching your memoir, did you have new insights?
Yes. There’s one event in particular – a story I don’t tell in the book because I didn’t have the realisation until after it was finished.

I’m around eight and a half, my mother comes to pick me up from my grandparents, hands me a white hat and says: “I knitted this for you.” I know this hat is from a store near the subway station. I don’t know why my mother is lying to me again; I can’t figure it out. Years later I spend a lot of time in psychoanalysis and it never gets resolved.

But when I’m writing the memoir, like the character in Homeland, I’ve placed index cards on the wall, with strings linking them, to make sure the timeline adds up. I figure out that my mother got her diagnosis of cancer at exactly this point.

So perhaps she was coming back from the doctor to pick me up from my grandparent’s house. And she’s decided not to tell me. She must have felt so alone, but wanting to connect with me, on the spur of the moment, she bought me this cap and, wanting to be more the perfect mother, hands it to me and says she knitted it. I could not empathise with her until I pinned where she was that afternoon.

In 1977 as a young professor at MIT you were asked to host a dinner at your home for [Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs, rather than spend the day with him on campus with your male colleagues. Was it typical of the sort of patriarchal attitudes in academia at that time?
Unfortunately, yes. I was the only woman in the department but more than that what I was actually studying – people’s infatuation and feelings about computers – was of interest to him.

His essential insights were that computers shouldn’t be these grey boxes sitting on tables. They should be beautiful things that people could identify with. I called it an intimate machine, I called the computer a second self – that was his kind of thing. So I deserved to be talking to Jobs. And of course, Steve Jobs walked into my apartment, looked at my vegetarian dinner and he said, this is the wrong kind of vegetarian and walked out.

So I was even a failure as the little woman. So I couldn’t even succeed as the lady professor who could make the dinner for Steve Jobs. I am so late to see the sexism in my own career and feel the appropriate anger.

The internet enables us to block, ghost and troll people. Yet it can help us feel less isolated. Are there two sides to the relationship between empathy and technology?
The answer to that question is yes, which is why this is no simple story. Look at the pandemic. It has made us so dependent on forging relationships and maintaining relationships onscreen.

It’s a miracle, but there are limitations. Let’s not get into the following problem. You start out saying the internet is better than nothing, then suddenly you start saying maybe it is better than everything. When I was researching Reclaiming Conversation, one 18-year-old said to me: “I tell you what’s wrong with conversation that takes place in real time. We cannot control what you’re going to say.”

I’ve been in Zoom meetings where things get difficult and some people just disappear. Then they reappear after the difficult part of the conversation has ended. You turn off your screen and put it on mute. The problem we face as this pandemic is ending, God willing, is that some people are going to be tempted not to reappear. The thing about human contact is that we’re vulnerable.

In your years of studying technology, has there been a turning point, feature or service that has accelerated its unwelcome side-effects?
There are two things. The point when Facebook and social media in general discovered its business model – that’s when the connection between democracy and privacy became my subject. After two manipulated US elections and the Covid misinformation, we are now seeing there’s a higher level of public consciousness about what’s going on here – 10 or 12 years ago I couldn’t get people to engage.

Number two is pretend empathy. AI programs that say they are listening, pretend they are your friend… more people are saying if they help an old or lonely person, that’s great. But this is my line in the sand. Living through the pandemic has shown that people need relationships, people need people. We can write programs that mimic us, but I don’t want to talk to a robot, something without a body, that isn’t a child, that didn’t have a mother.

If Silicon Valley changes its business model and we don’t have pretend empathy any more, I will put down my pen.

The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle is published by Penguin (£23.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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‘I hope the world will be safer’, says Molly Russell’s father after inquest – video | Technology

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Molly Russell’s father has accused the world’s biggest social media firms of ‘monetising misery’ after an inquest ruled that harmful online content contributed to the 14-year-old’s death.

Ian Russell accused Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, of guiding his daughter on a ‘demented trail of life-sucking content’, after the landmark ruling raised the regulatory pressure on social media companies.

The inquest heard on Friday that Molly, from Harrow, north-west London, had viewed large amounts of content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety on Instagram and Pinterest before she died in November 2017

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Google delays execution of deprecated Chrome extensions • The Register

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Google has delayed its browser extension platform transition for enterprise customers, giving those using managed versions of Chrome with the deprecated Manifest v2 (MV2) extensions an extra six months of support.

The Chocolate Factory has also redefined its deadlines for general Chrome users to make the transition to the new platform, called Manifest v3 (MV3), less of a shock to the system.

“Chrome will take a gradual and experimental approach to turning off Manifest V2 to ensure a smooth end-user experience during the phase-out process,” explained David Li, a product manager at Google, in a blog post. “We would like to make sure developers have the information they need, with plenty of time to transition to the new manifest version and to roll out changes to their users.”

Chrome will take a gradual and experimental approach to turning off Manifest V2 to ensure a smooth end-user experience

Developers, in other words, need more time to rewrite their extension code.

Previously, as of January 2023, Chrome was to stop running MV2 extensions. Enterprise managed Chrome installations had an extra six months with MV2, until June 2023.

The current schedule says MV2 extensions may or may not work in developer-oriented versions of Chrome used outside of enterprises. “Starting in Chrome 112, Chrome may run experiments to turn off support for Manifest V2 extensions in Canary, Dev, and Beta channels,” the timeline says.

And then in June 2023, MV2 extensions may or may not get disabled in any version of Chrome, including the Stable channel used by most people.

New MV2 extensions could no longer be added to the Chrome Web Store in June 2022, and that remains unchanged under the new roadmap; MV2 extensions already available the Chrome Web Store can still be downloaded and can still receive updates.

As of June 2023, MV2 extensions will no longer be visible in the store (so they can’t be newly installed, but can still be updated for existing users).

Come January 2024, nothing will be left to chance: the Chrome Web Store will stop accepting updates to MV2 extensions, all MV2 extensions will be removed from the store, and the MV2 usage in enterprises will end.

Li suggests developers make the transition sooner rather than later “because those [MV2] extensions may stop working at any time following the aforementioned dates.”

In recognition of the confusion among developers trying to adapt their extensions to MV3, Li said Google has implemented new APIs and platform improvements and has created a progress page to provide more transparency with regard to the state of MV2-MV3 transition.

Since 2018, Google has been revising the code that defines what browser extensions can do in Chrome. Its outgoing architecture known as Manifest v2 proved too powerful – it could be used by rogue add-ons to steal data, for example – and Google claimed use of those capabilities hindered browser performance. Critics like the EFF have disputed that.

Coincidentally, those capabilities, particularly the ability to intercept and revise network requests based on dynamic criteria, made Manifest v2 useful for blocking content and privacy-violating tracking scripts.

Under the new Manifest v3 regime, extensions have been domesticated. As a result, they appear to use computing resources more efficiently while being less effective at content blocking.

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Whether or not this results in meaningful performance improvement, the MV3 change has been championed by Google for Chrome and the open source Chromium project, and is being supported by those building atop Chromium, like Microsoft Edge, as well as Apple’s WebKit-based Safari and Mozilla’s Gecko-based Firefox.

However, Brave, Mozilla, and Vivadi have said they intend to continue supporting Manifest v2 extensions for an indeterminate amount of time. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.

Brave, like other privacy-oriented companies and advocacy groups, has made it clear this regime change is not to its liking. “With Manifest V3, Google is harming privacy and limiting user choice,” the developer said via Twitter. “The bottom line, though, is that Brave will still continue to offer leading protection against invasive ads and trackers.”

With Manifest V3, Google is harming privacy and limiting user choice

Google, on its timeline, suggests MV3 is approaching “full feature parity with Manifest V2.”

Extension developers appear to be skeptical about that. On Friday, in response to Google’s timeline revision posted to the Chromium Extension Google Group, a developer forum member who goes by the pseudonym “wOxxOm” slammed Google for posts full of corporate lingo about safety and security and pushed back against its statement about feature parity.

“[T]his definitely sounds reasonable if you don’t know the context, but given the subsequently plotted timeline it becomes a gross exaggeration and a borderline lie, because with the progress rate we all observed over the past years it’ll take at least several years more for MV3 to become reliable and feature-rich enough to replace MV2, not half a year or a year,” wOxxOm posted.

“Neither the issue list nor the announcement acknowledge that MV3 is still half-broken and unusable for anything other than a beta test due to its unreliable registration of service workers that break extensions completely for thousands of users, soon for millions because no one in Chromium has yet found out the exact reason of the bug, hence they can’t be sure they’ll fix it in the next months.”

This may not be the last time Google revises its transition timeline. ®



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Irish Research Council pumps €27m to fund next generation of researchers

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A total of 316 awardees of the IRC’s Government of Ireland programme will receive funding to conduct ‘pioneering’ research.

Postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in Ireland are set to get €27m in funding from the Irish Research Council (IRC) through its flagship Government of Ireland programme.

In an announcement today (30 September), the IRC said that a total of 316 Government of Ireland awards will be given to researchers in the country, including 239 postgraduate scholarships and 77 postdoctoral fellowships.

Awardees under the scheme will conduct research on a broad range of topics, from machine translation and social media to protecting wild bee populations and bioplastics.

“The prestigious awards recognise and fund pioneering research projects along with addressing new and emerging fields of research that introduce creative and innovative approaches across all disciplines, including the sciences, humanities and the arts,” said IRC director Louise Callinan.

Awardees

One of the science-focused postgraduate awardees, University of Galway’s Cherrelle Johnson, is working on the long-term sustainability of bioplastics as an alternative to fossil fuel-based plastics.

Another, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’s Tammy Strickland, is studying the role of the circadian rhythm, or the sleep-wake cycle, of immune cells in the brain in epilepsy.

Khetam Al Sharou of Dublin City University, one of the postdoctoral researchers to win the award, is looking into the use of machine translation in social media and the associated risks of information distortion.

Meanwhile, Robert Brose from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is investigating the particles and radiation that are emitted by high-energy sources in our milky way to try and find the most likely sources of life.

Diana Carolina Pimentel Betancurt from Teagasc, the state agency providing research and development in agriculture and related fields, is looking for natural probiotics in native honeybees to mitigate the effect of pesticides.

“Funding schemes like the IRC’s Government of Ireland programmes are vitally important to the wider research landscape in Ireland, as they ensure that researchers are supported at an early stage of their career and are given an opportunity to direct their own research,” Callinan said.

53 early-career researchers across Ireland got €28.5m in funding last month from the SFI-IRC Pathway programme, a new collaborative initiative between Science Foundation Ireland and the IRC. SFI and IRC are expected to merge to form one funding body in the coming years.

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