My book is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation: A conversation with Sherry Turkle

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.11.09 PMBy Ariana Huffington, Huffington PostSherry Turkle is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age cements her status as one of our pre-eminent thinkers on the ways technology impacts on our lives. In answer to my questions, she shared her insights on our capacity for solitude and empathy, how our phones affect our ability to truly connect with each other, and the difference between being anti-technology and pro-conversation.

Your work over the past few years has focused on how we are constantly connecting with one another via our devices. If we’re always communicating, what’s wrong with our conversation?

My research shows that we are too busy connecting to have the conversations that count, the kind of conversation in which we give each other our full attention, the kind where we allow an idea to develop, where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Yet these are the kinds of conversations in which intimacy and empathy develop, collaboration grows, and creativity thrives. We move from conversation to mere connection. And I worry that sometimes we forget the difference. Or forget that this is a difference that matters.

But Reclaiming Conversation feels like an optimistic book.

It is, most of all because I found that many young people sense that something is amiss. When I began writing this book, I conducted a focus group with a group of eight college juniors and one young man put it this way: “Our texts are fine, it’s what texting is doing to our conversations when we are together, that’s the problem.”

He had a profound insight. Research shows that if you put a phone — a phone turned off! — out on a table between two people having lunch, not only does the conversation “lighten up,” move to more trivial things, but the connection that two people have lessens. They feel less of a commitment to each other, less of an empathic connection to each other.

So if our phones are a deterrent to conversation, are you saying we should give up our phones?

By . I don’t think we should give up our phones at all. I think we have to use them more mindfully.

In what way most significantly?

For me, most significantly, they are part of a contemporary crisis in empathy. In the past 20 years, there is a 40 percent decline in empathic capacity among college students, with most of it taking place in the past 10 years. And our phones are part of a growing incapacity for solitude.

And being able to experience solitude is so important! That’s one of the central arguments in your book. Without solitude, no empathy.

Yes, it’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. You don’t need them to be anything other than who they are. This means you can listen to them and hear what they have to say. This makes the capacity for solitude essential to the development of empathy. If you can gather yourself, you can put yourself in someone else’s place.

So people who are good at solitude are good at relationships.

Yes, solitude and conversation form a kind of virtuous circle. And that’s the virtuous circle our phones can disrupt. We forget how to pay quiet attention to ourselves and this disrupts our ability to be with each other. Psychology teaches us a great truth that we ignore at our peril: If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.

Has neuroscience weighed in on this discussion?

Very much so! It has recently shown us that only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past. Neuroscientists call this the “default mode network.”[i] So, without solitude, we can’t construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digital have always had something external to respond to.

You are convincing on this issue that our capacity for empathy is under threat. You and I were at Davos last winter, where there was talk of “empathy apps.” Is there an app for that? Can technology solve this problem?

Indeed, the psychologist, Sara Konrath, who did the study that showed college students experiencing a 40 percent decline in empathy in the past 20 years, turned from that study to designing “empathy apps” for the iPhone. An “empathy app” might try to get you to imagine another’s point of view by telling you a story and teaching you how different characters in the story might feel.

I respect that technology may have a role. But to my way of thinking, we are the empathy app. For the failing connections of our digital age, conversation is the talking cure.

How do we take action in our role as “empathy apps”?

We don’t need to invent anything. We need to look up, look at each other, and start the conversation. We need to create device-free zones in our kitchens and dining rooms and cars. We have to take walks without our phones, especially with our children. We have to design for conversation in the workplace and make sure that we don’t undermine our efforts by giving the people who work for us the signal that what we really want is for them to be on their email or on the company messaging system all day. If you are expected to answer an email within 10 to 15 minutes, if that is how you are expected to show your devotion to your company, there is no room for conversation!

I agree with so much of what you say. But hasn’t every generation said that the technology that was new right then was the technology that would disrupt conversation? Didn’t people claim that books would destroy conversation? Is the smart phone just the book of our time?

Here is the difference: In the case of the book, as we chat with friends, with our spouses and children, face-to-face, we don’t put up a hand and say, give me a moment, I need to get in a few paragraphs of Madame Bovary. We don’t cycle through being with our friends and being with Emma and Charles Bovary in our book.

Let’s use phones the way we use books. We make time for them, we go to them!

What are the chief seductions of our phones? What makes us so vulnerable?

Our phones offer us gifts as though from a benevolent genie: that we will never again be alone, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, that we can always be heard, that we can present ourselves as we wish to be seen, that we can avoid difficult confrontations, and that we never have to be bored.

Do you think people are ready for change? These seductions of technology are impressive.

During my interviews with many hundreds of people, in schools and universities, in professional worlds from medicine to software development, I found that we are past an initial love affair with connectivity technology. We are starting to see the costs. I like to say that when it came to our phones, we used to be like young lovers, afraid that too much talking would spoil the romance. Now, we are in a more mature phase of the relationship. We know it’s time to talk. And I think that people are ready to talk.

What makes you sense this?

Two experiences stand out that dramatize this point. The first is a personal story. A father spoke to me about how he remembers that when his now-11-year-old daughter was little, he used to talk to her as she took a bath and how those conversations are his most cherished memories of their early intimacy. Now, he has a 2-year-old daughter and when he gives her a bath, he says he puts down the toilet seat and takes out his iPhone and does his email. He isn’t happy. He feels that is doing something that is detrimental to his relationship with his daughter. He wants to change. He is ready for a change.

Technology makes us forget what we know about life. Food technology made us forget what we knew about the diets that had sustained us for generations. We began to eat processed foods that were stripped of nutrients. But then we chose to remember what we know about real food and wellness. Well, after a while, we are starting to remember what we know about life.

What about politics? Why is conversation vital to democracy? Is it under threat?

On this question, I think of the silencing effect of knowing that the Internet is not a private space. When I was a little girl, my grandmother took me to the public library twice a week, and when I was about 10, she explained to me that the books I took out from the library were a “secret” between me and the library. I could read anything I wanted, and no one had the right to know. For my grandmother, this notion, I think of it as “mindspace,” was crucial to her patriotism, to what it meant to be an American.

When everything we read is shared, when we know that the history of our searches are the property of the software company that enables our searches, mindspace closes down.

And so I meet Lana, a brilliant young woman who has just graduated college, an economics major, who explains to me that she “is glad not to have anything controversial on my mind, because I can’t think of any online place where it would be safe to have controversial conversations.”

But Lana does not say that she finds any of this oppressive. It would be inconvenient to label it that way. If you label something as oppressive, that suggests that you should be thinking politically about changing it and Lana is not sure that this is the direction she wants to take her feelings of discontent, at least not now. Right now, as for many others, her line is that “we all are willing to trade off privacy for convenience.” This costly trade-off is tempting for all of us, but we treat it as arithmetic — as if, once it’s calculated, it doesn’t need to be revisited.

Yet politically, you see some openings for change. How is that? And you write that Edward Snowden is part of this optimism.

I wrote Reclaiming Conversation hoping that it would start conversations on two questions: “What is intimacy without privacy?” And “What is democracy without privacy?” I feel we have postponed our larger cultural conversation on both of these points. But on both of them, there is movement.

So, on the political point, many people have come to understand that we exist alongside digital representations of ourselves — digital doubles — that are useful to different parties at different times, or for some, at a time to be determined. Gradually, people have come to understand — think of Lana — that the digital self is archived forever. In the post-Snowden years, we have learned more — that the calls, locations, and online searches of ordinary Americans have been monitored. But almost everything about this process remains as secret as possible, shrouded under the mantle of national security or the claim of proprietary interests. Exactly what is taken? In what form? How long is it kept? What is it used for?

I have been talking to high school and college students about online privacy for decades. When young people see the “results” of online data collection, chiefly through the advertisements that appear on their screens, it is hard for them to see the problem. The fact that a desirable sneaker or the perfect dress pops up doesn’t seem like a big deal. But post-Snowden young people are more able to talk about the problems of data mining, in some measure because it has become associated (at least in their minds) with something easier to think about: spying.

And yet it is easy for this conversation to slip away from us. Because just as we start to have it, we become infatuated with a new entertainment or service on the Internet that asks us to reveal something of ourselves: We could report our moods to see if there are concerns to address. We could track our resting heart rate or the amount of exercise we get each week. So we offer up data to improve ourselves and postpone the conversation about what happens to the data we share.

Instead of pursuing the political conversation, we are tempted to sign up for another app. Keeping our minds clear, that is our challenge.

You spoke to a lot of families as you did the research for this book. I was surprised by how kids are critiquing their parents’ choices. What are kids able to see that we sometimes cannot?

I’m with one family at dinner when a 5-year-old girl cajoles, “Mommy, please! You promised! You had five minutes before!” when her mother’s phone vibrates for the third time. At another table, an 8-year-old boy gets up from the table and tugs at his mother’s sleeve when she takes out her phone during the meal. “No. Not now. Not now!” To her child she says, “Mommy has to make a quick call,” and turns her back to the table. The boy returns to his chair, sullen.

Recently, I see an encouraging sign: young people’s discontent. Children, even very young children, say they are unhappy with how much attention their parents give to phones. Some formulate, as teenagers, that they are going to bring up their own children in a very different way than how they have been raised. One young man said to me “I want to raise my children not the way my parents are raising me, but the way they think they are raising me.”

One of the things that surprised me in Reclaiming Conversation was that, in families and in relationships, people now want to fight by text. Is this widespread? Is it a problem?

I met families who prefer to air their differences this way. It’s a way of avoiding a kind of conflict, a kind of stress. As one mother told me, “fighting by text” is a way to minimize the risk that anyone will say anything they might regret. And it makes it more likely that family members will say what they have on their minds because they don’t feel as vulnerable.

For this woman, spontaneity is overrated when talking to your family. She thinks the key to successful family conversations is preparation and editing. She says she is able to have more successful interactions with her teenage son because she is able to compose her thoughts before sending them. Without the “time delay” of texting, she could not find the right words to reach him. And in her view, this is important: the “right words.” And the right emotional tone: caring but cool, is also something she doesn’t think she could consistently achieve in person. I have spoken of the “Goldilocks effect,” the way that digital communication allows us to get at what seems like an optimal distance from the people we interact with, “not too close, not too far, but just right.” This mother feels that texting allows “just right.”

This implies that you think there is a way for people to talk to each other in which each party will say the right thing. Relations within families are messy and untidy. If we clean them up with technology, we don’t necessarily do them justice.

You talk about a school you call Holbrooke where a faculty member says the 12 year olds play like 8 year olds. What does that have to do with conversation? What is at stake here developmentally?

The students were having trouble putting themselves in the place of the other, with having an empathic response to other children. So, for example, the director told me of one case that had made a deep impression on her. A seventh grader had excluded a classmate from a school-wide event, but when asked about why she did this, she could not say. She couldn’t talk about her feelings or how her classmate might feel. She could only say, “I don’t have any feelings about this.” For teachers at the school, the connection to conversation was this: In conversation, we learn to put ourselves in the place of the other, we get practice in attending to the feelings of others.

Holbrooke teachers said that it is a struggle to get children to talk to each other in class, to directly address and debate each other. It is a struggle to get them to meet with faculty. In the dining room, the faculty say, when they share things, they are sharing what is on their phones. Is this the new conversation? If so, it is not doing the work of the old conversation. As these teachers see it, the old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.

I saw you contributed to a New York Times article on Hello, Barbie. What does it mean that kids are now talking to their toys? And in the book you talk about children talking to Siri. What is the harm in that?

Sociable robots such as Hello, Barbie offer pretend empathy. They may say, “I have a sister. I’m jealous of my sister. Do you have a sister too? Are you jealous of yours? Let’s talk about that… ” But they have no empathy to offer because they don’t have a sister, don’t have a mother, do not know the arc of a human life. They can deliver only performances of empathy and connection. And yet, we persist in the idea that we can draw empathy and connection from machines.

What is this about? People are lonely and fear intimacy, and robots seem ready to hand. And we are ready for their company if we forget what intimacy is. And having nothing to forget, our children learn new rules for when it is appropriate to talk to a machine. Her talks with the inanimate are taking her in another direction altogether: to a world without risk and without caring. And in the end, that is my fear for all of us. If we don’t come back to valuing conversation, we may all end up in a world without risk and without caring.