I can't wait to read Sherry Turkle's latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Dr. Turkle is one of the best thinkers and writers I've found on the impact of technology on human life. She's neither an alarmist nor an apologist for technology, which makes her just the catalyst we need for a nuanced discussion about this stuff.
Here's Turkle's latest thesis, according to the New York Times: 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.
That sentence hit me hard this morning. I've been so disheartened by what passes for intelligent discourse on the Internet lately. I'm not talking about comments on news articles--we all know how those are: sad buffet tables full of deep-fried lizard brain, liberally spiced with references to Hitler and "Obummer." No, I'm talking about Facebook threads--friends, and friends of friends. So many words. So little reflection and understanding.
From the article:
Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”)
Ouch. [If you haven't seen Louis CK's bit about this on Conan's show, go, do it now. Rated PG13 for mild language and one crude gesture.]
Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help “inoculate” children against bullying.)
This is one of the reasons family dinner is so important--and why it's best if family dinner is a screen-free zone.
When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.
I heard Sherry Turkle interviewed on the Note to Self podcast last week, talking about how texting is replacing conversation in ways that can be concerning. We are increasingly rejecting conversation as an outmoded technology because it is so inefficient. It meanders and is sometimes boring. By contrast, texting happens when it's convenient for us. We can craft our responses so they are "perfect" (her word, quoting numerous people who saw texting as superior to conversation).
I think she's absolutely right. AND I appreciate that she too is a user of technology--she's not suggesting we give the whole thing up. (Though seriously with the bad Facebook arguments. I'm about one week and a blood sugar crash away from nuking my account.)
Caroline has been taking an old iPod Touch to school to read Kindle books during her study period. But I also get texts from her sometimes during lunch. She has block scheduling, and on "grey day" she has no friends to sit with. Having someone to reach out to gives her a sense of comfort, and we've had some deep interactions through text.
I remember what it was like to be the new kid in the middle school and not have anyone to sit with at lunch. I would have killed for a smartphone! Not only does it give Caroline something to do, it also connects her with her larger tribe, so she can remember there's more to life than the cliques in the lunchroom. And on "blue days" I'm happy she's with a group of friends, and I don't hear a peep from her.
So it's not an all-or-nothing thing.
That said, conversation is powerful precisely because it's unscripted. (Improvisational!) I was walking James to school this morning, and he was in a bad mood and complaining about everything. I was tired and bored by his constant carping and just wanted him to stop. I was ignoring him as best I could, then I paused a minute and really listened to him (the most important skill in good conversation--and the one I often forget when I'm being too task-oriented).
He said, "Why does this street have so many leaves on it?!?"
I stopped walking and said, "Seriously? You're complaining about the leaves??" He put his head down in his sweatshirt. I thought he was pouting, but then I saw he was laughing. So then we made it a game, to see how many ridiculous complaints we could come up with. "That house is TOO BLUE!" "That street lamp is labeled 157. That's my LEAST FAVORITE NUMBER!" "The sun is so bright on the trees it's making my EYES HURT!"
By the time we got to school he was in a fantastic mood. And so was I.
I love technology. I'm a heavy user of it. And conversation can be inefficient, tedious, or just plain dull. But it's also full of unexpected surprises. Much like life. And love.