Checked your phone lately? If you’re like most of us, at least according to Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” you consult your phone every 6½ minutes. All day, every day. At meetings. Amid family dinners. Attending church. During conversations. Right now.
Is this reliance on smartphone technology damaging our humanity? Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of several books on our evolving relationship with technology, answers yes, emphatically.
“Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do,” Turkle writes at the book’s outset. “It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy.” Our device addiction threatens the cultivation of that ability because we respond to each beep and vibration “as though it had the urgency of a threat in the wild,” so that many of us attend to digital connection over human interaction.
The net result of this diminished “empathic capacity” is two-fold. With technology as an ever-ready distraction, we fill each second of the day, avoiding time formerly used for self-reflection. We also suffer deadening of human relations because “[t]utored by technology, we become reactive and transactional in our exchanges because this is what technology makes easy.” Essentially we’re becoming estranged from both ourselves and others.
“Reclaiming Conversation” highlights smartphones, but the book is a broad indictment of our communication culture. Much of the book’s contents — which include digital distraction in classrooms and family dining rooms, unproductive yet pervasive multitasking, the confusion between clicking “like” on Facebook and actual political engagement — have been covered by other writers. Turkle is rare, however, in both synthesizing these various critiques and positing the necessity of conversation as the most effective, human response to our contemporary digital siege state.
Turkle often makes her arguments through anecdote, most of which seem drawn from a kind of digital “Twilight Zone.’’ For instance, Turkle socializes with a group of young adults. As the group chats with each other (you know, with words and voices) they maintain simultaneous, real-time meta-conversations via text messages. Like most of the people Turkle interviews, this group recognizes the creepiness of their behavior, but they much prefer the ability to compose their thoughts via text before sending them. Spontaneity scares them.
Turkle also recounts the story of “Adam,” who shares text messages between himself and an ex, sadly rhapsodizing about their lost love. The texts are “trapped” in an old phone Adams totes around. Much of the relationship was carried on via e-mail and text, which allowed Adam to edit his communication and “be his best self.’’ In the end, Adam’s girlfriend breaks up with him because she feels he is not empathetic enough, that he doesn’t understand her.
“Reclaiming Conversation” bursts with such stories, all deftly illustrating the book’s underlying research, which reveals that “we are in flight from those face-to-face conversations that enrich our imaginations.” Ironically, we’ve created technologies so masterful at surface connection that we now suffer a destabilizing, dehumanizing isolation.
“Reclaiming Conversation” could have focused more imaginatively on politics. Turkle discusses mouse clicks as proxies for political action and the self-selected, ideologically one-dimensional engagement fostered by social media. But politics would deeply benefit from what we could call democratic dialogue. To flourish, democracy needs both the formal mechanisms of liberal governance and the faith that all citizens will, at the very least, be heard, no mean feat in the society Turkle lays bare. This requires civic trust, something that has been battered in recent years. Across the country, people are losing faith in the promises of democracy — of equal protection, of equal opportunity, of equal treatment — and settling into a corrosive cynicism. Real conversation could be a first step in transcending this distrustful gridlock. Turkle is sympathetic to these ideas. I only wish she had dwelt more directly on them.
That’s a matter of emphasis, though. Turkle’s witty, well-written book offers much to ponder, especially as we move into yet another polarized and polarizing election year. This is the season of polls and sound bites, of Facebook updates extolling the perceived virtues or revealing the assumed villainy of opinions. Talk is cheap, but conversation is priceless.
By Sherry Turkle
Penguin Press, 435 pp., $27.95
Michael Washburn is the director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities. He can, of course, be reached almost any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.