Reclaiming Conversation

By: Neil Mufson
I just read an advance review of a forthcoming book by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle that could be considered a kind of sequel to The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair, the book the faculty read this summer, I discussed at Parent Night, and will be the focus of a parent discussion I will host on October 20 at 8:15 in the Aftercare room.  The New York Times reviewer Jonathan Franzen sums up Turkle’s argument in Reclaiming Conversation this way:  “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.”  It turns out that in losing consistent face-to-face conversation, we lose some of what it is to be human.

In her prior book, Alone Together, Turkle had documented the decline in social values such as caring, community, and human connection that has accompanied the rise in people’s preference for virtual “socializing” over real life interaction. In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle discovers a growing dissatisfaction with how people “adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them.”  She maintains that the “idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated; they communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.”

In fact, Turkle has found they are losing something fundamental. Franzen states, “When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins.” Furthermore, in face-to-face conversation children learn to discern, gauge, and be responsive to others’ feelings. When they talk to their parents in sustained ways, they develop a sense of connectedness, self, and empathy. Interestingly, Turkle believes that this kind of parental-child conversation also “inoculates” children against bullying. She, like Steiner-Adair, feels that adult over-attachment to devices and what they make possible augurs against children gaining bedrock skills.

Turkle believes we must reclaim conversation and device-free time for some other compelling reasons.  In the kind of solitude we can experience when free from technology’s draw, we “converse” with ourselves, figure out our own thinking, develop patience, and have time to exercise our imaginations. She also notes that “conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear,” but that is when patience and creativity are most likely fostered. When connected to others virtually and intermittently, even if frequently, we risk losing all of this.

Turkle documents recent studies which show a steep decline in empathy among “college students of the smartphone generation.”  In the near future, I will share a recent NYT opinion piece by Turkle called “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” that begins like this: “College students tell me they know how to look someone in the eye and type on their phones at the same time, their split attention undetected. They say it’s a skill they mastered in middle school when they wanted to text in class without getting caught. Now they use it when they want to be both with their friends and, as some put it, ‘elsewhere.'”  Stay tuned…

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