'Reclaiming Conversation': what we lose when we're always online

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is not averse to technology. But she expresses hope that society's reliance on it could be moderated a bit.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle Penguin Press 448 pp.

In Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation, her important new book on the often adverse effects of technology on society, empathy plays a repeated and crucial role. The ability to develop and converse about sophisticated thoughts on complex subjects, and to appreciate the reactions of others through face-to-face encounters are, in Turkle's mind, compromised by society's increasing reliance on smartphones and other portable technologies. 

Turkle makes it very clear from the outset that she is not averse to technology – she is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – but she continually expresses hope that society's reliance on it, to the detriment of personal relationships, could perhaps be moderated a bit. She is careful not to lurch into the cultural pessimism of the late Neil Postman, who in his 1992 book "Technopoly," described a culture that "seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology." Turkle's aspiration here is to instead help us modify our behavior in some positive and meaningful way that will help us regain the ability to converse, and ultimately, to empathize.

Turkle begins her book by discussing describing how our technologies have caused silences that have caused us to become "cured of talking" – resulting in a loss of the means of self-reflection. She beautifully details how Henry David Thoreau, in "Walden," described leaving the "crush of random chatter" to live in solitude at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. This permitted him a period of "self-reflection," and his selection of cabin furniture suggested anything but a retreat from talk. He mentions "three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." In Turkle's words, this was important because "In solitude, we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to listen to other people and hear what they have to say. And then in conversation with other people we become better at inner dialogue."

Later in the book, Turkle adds a fourth chair – representing a philosophical space – about what we become when we talk to machines. This touches upon the premise of Turkle's earlier book, "Alone Together," which involves the anthropomorphic attributes we ascribe to "caring robots;" or in this case, how we relate to apps and other mobile technologies that promise new, exciting conversations and more empathetic connections.

By far, empathy is the guiding thread that runs throughout this book, and Turkle's argument in pursuit of it is very strong. In fact, she mentions the term on more than a hundred pages, and the concept touches on every aspect of human interaction. The idea that high school and college students – and even many adults – feel more secure and less awkward in sending text messages rather than meeting in person or speaking on the phone, is a powerful indicator of this loss of empathy among families, romantic partners, and colleagues in the workplace. In a way, it's the technological version of the so-called "safe space," today finding a following on university campuses – a physical place where students can retreat from difficult and pressure-laden issues of the "real" world.

Turkle also offers a number of examples of how parents have, for lack of a better word, forsaken their children to live in their own online bubbles. One such case was a divorced father who wanted to be closer to his young daughter and to that end traveled with her on a school field trip. However, the dad found himself spending so much time online that his daughter implored him to "put down the phone."

Other parents are shown to have rules such as "no phones at the dinner table,"which they themselves continually violate. This has had multiple (mostly negative) effects: children taking cues from their parents by emulate their phone activity – sometimes in rebellion; and causing them to feel both alienation and loneliness. One teenage boy was quoted as saying, "I could interrupt my father if he was reading the paper … his laptop is different. He's gone." And yet another observant 15-year-old commented with some defiance, "I'm going to raise my children the way my parents think they are raising me. Not the way they really are raising me."

The various social media platforms that have served to exacerbate this trend – such as Facebook – have created often superficial networks of "friends." These relationships, as Turkle observes, serve to trivialize the substance of conversations; for example, there are no "dislike" options for posts, and there exists the option of editing or even deleting them, both of which can alleviate the poster's feeling of awkwardness, but also dilute the quality of the interactions. This phenomenon also creates online "camps" of the like-minded who, in political and other contexts, can avoid addressing the opinions of others. These often epistolary and otherwise two-dimensional relationships can provide momentary gratification to them and their "friends," but they do not foster the type of truly organic friendships that in-person conversations cultivate. These young people in fact fear the unpredictability of conversation and this technology provides an escape hatch.

The explosion of the mobile phone has been the most consequential conduit of this new culture of distraction, and in some instances has helped create a new lexicon. For instance, Turkle describes adolescents who attend a party and spend all their time texting friends at other parties to identify which is the "best" one. This constant search of the next best thing is referred to as "FOMO" (Fear of Missing Out). "Phubbing" or phone-snubbing, is just that – one person looking at his or her phone while conversing in person with another. Empathy for the feelings of person not so distracted is the chief casualty of this impolite and discourteous act. 

On a positive note, one important area where these consequences are well-understood is among those in sales or other customer-relations occupations, a sample of which Turkle queried. These people seemed to realize better than most that successful customer development required both phone and in-person contact; in other words, trust is an important by-product of personal interaction. The need to learn of and appreciate the (dis) satisfaction of customers, and to develop new business relationships requires that clients look each other in the eye and honestly express their needs.

On the other hand, Turkle examines companies that, perhaps unwittingly, have short-circuited conversation (and hence, innovation) among employees. She cites an example of one company that had a common space devoted to innovation where employees were encouraged to meet and converse – in the manner of a "water cooler." However, the same company countervailed against that with an internal online conversation platform where a "green heart" indicated one was available. If queries were sent out by managers (even at late hours), employees often felt obligated/pressured to answer right away, and this had the effect of detracting from the stated ambition of the company to foster casual conversations in the on-site common room. 

Turkle closes the book with a discussion of privacy issues associated with online platforms that is as interesting as it is unsettling. The constant data mining Internet corporations engage in not only compromises our privacy – Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg once infamously quoted that "Privacy is no longer a relevant social norm" – but it also requires us to surrender some of our own identity, to be replaced by one that has been assembled by both commercial and governmental entities using our own Internet history. Turkle also details the spectre of Edward Snowden, who exposed many of the questionable activities of the Federal government's National Security Agency in harvesting Americans' personal data, and how our fears of this have been counterbalanced by a desire for additional convenience through, say, a new app that asks us to reveal more of ourselves. This is food for serious thought. 

But I believe the most profound plea is one Turkle details within the last 10 pages of the book, regarding emotions and how they are expressed to and discussed with children. In one powerful passage, Turkle asserts: "Children need to learn what complex human feelings and human ambivalence look like. And they need other people to respond to their own expressions of that complexity. These are the most precious things that people give to children in conversation as they grow up. No robot has these things to teach." The lesson: we are not robots and we should not abdicate parenting responsibilities in deference to our robotic devices. At the end of the day, our human problems (and opportunities) are still here, and we need to address them vigorously before we indulge our online needs.

For all the many strengths of this book, it has a few weaknesses – one of them being a lack of economic and cultural diversity in Turkle's surveys. It could have been even more informative if she'd done controls in rural areas (where Internet access can be poor or even non-existent), or in urban settings where activity on social media platforms like Twitter has been shown to be very strong. Other associated discussions could have touched on the importance of social media in bringing people together who might otherwise have never met—in addition to facilitating political movements by mobilizing citizens, or effect reforms in the policing in American cities. Even in their epistolary nature, relationships such as these can and often do foster authentic, in addition to virtual, communities.

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