Few observers have gotten closer than Sherry Turkle to what digital technology has done to our souls. She’s followed up her chilling 2011 book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” with a look at the way digital devices and the online world make it harder for us to engage in meaningful ways. “Reclaiming Conversation” is subtitled “The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” but it looks not just at the corrosion of conversation but of solitude and society as well.
A psychologist and professor at MIT – where she directs the university’s Initiative on Technology and Self – starts with the work of Henry David Thoreau and contrasts his vision with the lives of millennials and contemporary parents who pay more attention to their iPhones than their kids.
“This is a persuasive and intimate book,” Carlos Lozada wrote in the Washington Post, “one that explores the minutiae of human relationships. 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.”
We spoke to Turkle from New York City. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
So let’s start with the issue of conversation. The digital world has changed us in all kinds of ways, as individuals, as a society. Why is conversation the right lens to contemplate on, to get at the seismic shifts?
First of all, we have to start at the fact that I’m a psychologist. I think you want to write about what you know and you should write about it with confidence. So, I finished a book that describes people’s experience with isolation, even in the middle of being connected. I’m very interested in that kind of paradox. They’ve called it "alone together," but I’m sure there are other better ways to describe that new kind of feeling that I experience myself. I’m alone but I have 500 unopened emails.
I would interview people and find that that wasn’t an isolated experience, it was happening to so many people. As I was finishing that book – which I had begun way before social media was a big thing; it was a 15-year project – I began to hear more and more something that I did not have a chance to explore. I just had a chance to hear it, which was “I would rather text than talk.” I mean, it was almost like a joke. It was one more person, it wasn’t just kids, it wasn’t just grown-ups. It was my students; they didn’t want to come to office hours, they would rather text than talk.
And I just began to think at the end of this “Alone Together” project, as a psychologist, what does conversation do for us? Where do we develop the kind of give-and-take, of sensing other people’s bodies and response to us? Putting ourselves in place of others? For children that’s like the bedrock, the bedrock of development.... In business you need it; there was this great research on conversation and productivity and conversation being good for the bottom line.
And I thought, what about if I take seriously what these people are saying to me, and I just pursue the question of conversation in many areas of life, the best I can for five years. I wasn’t going to do another 15-year project. I’m going to give myself five years and be the Energizer Bunny. For five years, I’m going to study conversation, and I decided on Thoreau.
I was very interested in Thoreau at the time and this essay where he talked about the three chairs in his house – one for solitude, one for friendship and one for society – and how they kind of worked together. You need solitude for friendship, you need friendship and solitude for society and… you read the book so you understand.
And I said, I’m just gonna pursue this story, kind of like a journalist. I just became compelled. Then, as I began to pursue this story, I realized that I was far from alone. All of these researchers were doing absolutely magnificent studies, the kind of studies I don’t do, which were very interesting quantitative studies of the putting the phone on the table and the conversation becomes trivial and people don’t empathize with each other.... The putting of people in solitude and people giving themselves electroshocks every six minutes because they can’t tolerate minutes of solitude as they feel the need to administrate self-induced electroshocks.
That’s the reason it happened and I felt, more and more, that conversation was a thing that we were interrupting. The thing that bothers me about this technology, because I’m so pro-technology, is the fact that it interrupts us from giving our attention. Like right now, I’m really into this conversation and I love Salon… but my phone is blipping! It’s telling me that you’re not the only one. I think there’s a setting that I can turn that off. It’s not blipping for another call, it’s blipping for an email and I don’t know how to turn of that setting; it’s annoying. We live life that way.
In a traditional kind of conversation, a face-to-face encounter between two people, what is happening? It’s not just two people talking. There’s a kind of deep interaction, ideally, right?
Yes. I don’t need to call it deep. I really want to de-romanticize what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the basics. I’m not talking about “And now, Let’s do Heidegger" talk.
When a parent talks to a child over breakfast and says, “What’s happening at school today?” You’re getting eye contact, you’re getting attention to body language, you’re getting vocalization, you’re putting yourself in the place of the other, you’re getting a back-and-forth of turn-taking. You’re getting respect for someone finishing their thoughts. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is listening to you. You’re getting the feeling that someone else is going to be there to hear you finish your idea. You’re getting the bare bones of a relationship. You’re learning empathy and continuity.
You’re learning things that you’re going to take to every aspect of your life, of relationship and community and friendship and romance. You’re learning how to think about yourself. It’s in conversation with other people, in that respectful back-and-forth of ideas that you learn how to do it to yourself for yourself. You learn self-reflection. It’s not like people kind of jump out of the womb, knowing what to do about their problems. They have conversations with other people and it kind of models how you think about your own stuff. So, so much is going on in that.
In my book I talk about, instead, a parent is doing their email at breakfast and the child is being ignored. They’re not getting that. So my basic point of view is very simple. We just have to hold on to our phones and just use them with intention. Now that we’ve had some experience with them, we can see the ways they can be tremendous disruptors. And in some ways, younger people are better at it than older ones…
You’ve written – especially in your new book, and in “Alone Together” – about teenagers, students, young people. You’re a college professor and spend a lot of time with them. We think generally about young people as being mostly comfortable with the digital world and its distractions. But you’ve found that many of them aren’t, even if sometimes they can’t articulate it. Some of them suspect something is wrong – that these devices have taken over their lives.
Well, I would say there’s a conflict here. On the one hand, I just spoke with a young woman who read my book and said, “Listen, I really want to defend the kind of talk I have (and I talk a lot about these people in my book). I’m with my friends and I’m also on the phone, and actually the people who I’m with were also on the phone together. We’re also on social media together even though we’re in the room together, and there are other people in the conversation who are just on social media. And I really want to defend that as a very rich way of interacting, and I don’t want to hear from you that that’s not great.”
And to all of those people who love that, I want to say that sounds like a really rich interaction. And just as long as you know how to do other things, I am very fine that you know how to do that, and enjoy that. Because I’m not the Darth Vader of social media, here to take away the pleasure and the fun of being able to enjoy that.
I know those conversations. I’ve watched them; I’ve seen the transcripts of them. I’m very familiar with their wit and the sexiness and the eroticism, and the pleasures of those interactions. And I’m just here to say that as long as they’re fluid enough and flexible enough that they can also have conversations one-to-one, and do the kind of thing that that sort of conversation can accomplish – all the more power that we’ve expanded our range.
I celebrate that, that we’ve expanded our horizons. The fact that I can do email with you – I love that. I mean, this is great. So I’m not going to say I’m not going to use email because I can only use the voice, you can hear my modulation… that’s stupid. And I love texting with everybody. But then, I also know a lot of young people who are very aware that they’re often in conversations where they’re with their friends but they’re also on their phones, and the conversation is really trivial because they’re constantly being interrupted. And like that one guy says, “Our texting is fine. It’s what texting does to the conversation that’s basically is the problem.”
And a lot of people are really concerned about that. So I found a lot of young people who really, I would say, were very aware of that, and wanted to talk to me about that at length, and the sort of role their parents had played in really sensitizing themselves to the importance of putting their phones away, and how important it was for them to learn that.
I think that you found that even a phone that wasn’t being used changed the tone of the conversation. If two or three people are sitting around, say, a dinner table, and a phone is out and visible, it changes the way everybody connects or doesn’t connect. It doesn’t even need to be ringing. What does it do to that small encounter?
It makes everybody aware that the conversation could be interrupted. And you see that in experimental results – so there are experiments that have been done that show that. And then you see that ethnographically when you watch people interacting, but also when people talk about what it’s like to go to dinner in those situations. So you see that it’s a reminder that we’re interruptible. It’s a reminder that we’re not just there for each other right now. And that’s the gratification of feeling that “You are mine for now. I can make a mistake.”
I love the girl who talks about the seven-minute rule. People take at least seven minutes to figure out if the conversation is going to be interesting. And she says, “I’m usually not willing to put in my seven minutes.” But she knows what she’s losing. She says, “I’m not willing to put in my seven minutes. Because that’s what’s wrong with me, that’s what’s wrong with my generation. I go to my phone – I don’t like to be bored.”
You make a powerful and frightening argument in your book that something’s wrong with the way we’re interacting these days. For those of us who recognize that there really is a problem – whether we’re teachers or parents, or just citizens of the 21st century – what can we do to, as you say, reclaim conversation, restore human connection?
It’s funny. I wrote an op-ed for the [New York] Times… They made me add a line that says, This all may sound simple, and not a big deal, but if taken together, they really make a big, big difference.
So first of all, act with intention. I tell the story of the guy who’s giving his 2-year-old daughter a bath, and he’s doing his email when he’s giving her a bath. And he remembers his 11-year-old daughter, and how he used to talk to her when she was in the bathtub. He feels so terrible, but he does it anyway.
That guy, he knows that he’s not letting conversation do its work. So that guy needs to put down his phone and not bring it into the bathroom. So I talk about designing for vulnerability, which is one of my big, big things now; that when you go on a diet, your first step is not to stock up your refrigerator with Häagen-Dazs. This guy has no business bringing the phone into the bathroom if he knows that the conversation with his daughter is very important.
So I talk about sacred spaces – the kitchen, the dining room, the car – as places you just don’t bring your device. And those are places that are places for conversation. So conversations will happen if you make spaces that are for conversation. And a wonderful study about our resilience – that after only five days in a summer camp with no devices, the empathy numbers rebound. It’s very inspirational.
So that’s my first thing: Design for vulnerability, make sacred spaces for conversation. When you find yourself in situations where you know you’re doing something that is acting against the best interest of you and your family, your lover or your friend – stop. Take a minute. Take a breath, and think.
And then I really believe in taking time for solitude, because conversation begins in solitude. And I really believe in this virtuous circle, this whole notion that you need solitude in order to come to conversation with the ability to listen to other people, and form a relationship of… well, you can really hear what they have to say and not just project on them what you need them to say.
Well, we end up back where your last book, "Alone Together," began. Thanks again for taking some time to speak.