“Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” by Sherry Turkle (Penguin Press, 436 pages, $27.95)
Sherry Turkle holds an endowed chair at M.I.T. A trained sociologist and licensed clinical psychologist, every day she rubs shoulders with the roboticists and affective-computing engineers who roam M.I.T’s hoary halls. For 30 years she has studied the psychology of the human-technology interface and has, over those years, produced three masterpieces in the field: “The Second Self,” “Life on the Screen” and “Alone Together.” “Reclaiming Conversation” is, in some ways, the culmination of her life’s work – a vital, systematically dramatic and intelligent book that demands our attention at a time when the skills of attention are sorely lacking.
In these investigations on the frontier of the people-device divide a sense of urgency and calm emerge, though as more observations and interviews pile up, there is an increasing stack of evidence that old emotive values like empathy and self-reflection are giving way to less hopeful and humane behaviors. When we replace pets with “lovable robots,” nurses with “robotic caregivers” and family conversation with incessant device interruption, what have we got?
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It starts early. There are baby bouncers (potty trainers) manufactured with slots to hold a digital device. Studies reveal that Americans check their mobile phones and devices every six and a half minutes. Scattered about are laptops, tablets, phones, a desktop computer and in the background a television grinding away (with several “scrolls” at the bottom and pundits screaming at each other). We are wired to crave instant gratification. Young women report they’re no longer able to focus on one thing or one person at a time. Others report a “problem with conversation” because it cancels out multitasking and makes them feel “creepy.” Hyper-connected, we imagine ourselves more efficient but aren’t, believe ourselves more connected but aren’t, picture ourselves as important and vital, but aren’t. Solitude, once an opportunity for an individual to grow and mature (quiet giving our neurological system a chance to develop a stable autobiographical past), now is viewed with trepidation – what will I miss? What’s going on? Conversation, eye-to-eye and face-to-face, having disappeared in favor of multiple representation and touch-screen availability, now engenders anxiety. The virtual inhales the real, and any sense of community vanishes.
In her new, amazingly coherent and hopeful book, Turkle extends this critique of the totem-like hold of electronic devices over our personal and professional lives into the realm of therapy, encouraging us as individuals to break the chains of our obsession with screens by reconnecting with people through good, old-fashioned talk. Grounding this work is the empirical reality that has emerged from years of research on early childhood development. Children do best in an environment dense with conversation, eye contact (activities that grow neurons and synapses and develop emotional balance), and human touch, environments dense too with complex, interactive language, family togetherness and loving teachers. Sadly, these days, educational “initiatives” often involve saddling children with I-Pads, computers, and computational devices, laying technology on thick, as human interaction fades to black. Watch any group of young people these days, standing around with their screens in their hands, heads down. Regard if you will the “rule of three” that requires in any group of seven friends, at least three be looking up from their phones, a rule giving pretense to the nodal idea of conversation.
The dangers from this technological fix are real. Standard psychological tests of college students reveal a steady and steep decline in empathy, a rise in sensitivity to “boredom,” and a loss of the ability to focus for long periods of time. The family, schools, workplaces and the “public square” each reflect this falling level of both civil discourse and empathetic relationship. Who hasn’t been at a work meeting where nearly every employee present is staring down at a screen? And the falling away from empathy increases as plethora of new “platforms” steer us away from human interaction and toward the isolation reserved for screen-life. As Turkle writes, “Each of us who “feeds” the system ends up being shaped by it. … We don’t so much conform because we fear the consequences of being caught out in deviant behavior; rather we conform because what is shown to us online is shaped by our past interests. The system presents us with what it believes we will buy or read or vote for.” Our online profiles are always deliberately constructed performances. Online we’re tidy and happy. Offline (in real, everyday life) we’re nervous and impatient. Noise and distraction are now the default settings.
Turkel, always the therapist, offers us good advice at the end of her revelatory book: Remember the power of your phone. It is not an accessory. It is, rather, a potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are. Slow down. Take time to think, deliberate, and to cherish your grand solitude. Protect your creativity. Find your own agenda and assume your own pace. Don’t let electronic gadgets disconnect you from the source of your humanity. Create sacred spaces for conversation. Establish a baseline for family culture and design an environment for yourself and your kids free from interruptions. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. Our brains crave noise and change, flooding addicts with toxic hormones. Advertisers and machine designers know this. Fool them by kicking the habit.
Gaylord Dold is a crime writer based in Wichita. Visit his blog at www.gaylorddold.com.