We’re used to being connected all the time. Yet, we’re uncomfortable with conversation – at least conversation that isn’t aided by technology; conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous. And it’s hurting our ability to empathize, cautions MIT Professor Sherry Turkle.
“Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we do,” wrote Turkle in “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” an adaptation from her just-published book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (Penguin Press). Featured in Sunday’s New York Times, it was last week’s most-read article and has since gone viral.
Clearly, it’s a poignant topic that hits home for many of us. But the message isn’t simply to put down our phones. We need to put them away – when we’re at home, at school, in the car, at the ballpark, at the office. Studies of conversation in the laboratory and natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on the table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. Even a silent phone disconnects us.
As highly regarded novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen commented in his review of “Reclaiming Conversation,” Turkle’s book is “a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”
If we’re unable to do so – if we continue to sacrifice self-reflection and our ability to relate to others – we’ll continue to consume others in bits and pieces, “our relationships stamped with the assumption of divided attention,” explains Turkle, who has studied the psychology of online connectivity for more than 30 years; for the past five, she’s focused on what happens to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many of us say we’d rather text than talk.
According to a Washington Post review, “Turkle uses our experiences to shame us, showing how, phones in hand, we turn away from our children, friends and co-workers, even from ourselves.” But she also gives us the tools – and motivation – to reclaim conversation.
“It’s not about giving up our phones… [they] are facts of life and part of our creatives lives,” clarifies Turkle, who is not at all a Luddite. It’s “about using them with greater intention.”