“Reclaiming Conversation” As a Needed Tool: Sherry Turkle’s New Book

Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:

“We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.”

“This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.” 

Although no one meant for technology to replace conversation in most facets of life, it’s happening. Smartphones, as reviewer Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) states, have become “the new sugar and fat: They are so potent they can undo us if we don’t limit them.”

Author Jonathan Franzen, New York Times, believes “the most moving and representative section of [Turkle’s] book concerns the demise of family conversation. According to Turkle’s young interviewees, the vicious circle works like this: ‘Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish’.”

Additional Selected Quotes From Reclaiming Conversation

The following are taken from Turkle’s recent essay (adapted from the book) in the New York Times:

When college students explain to me how dividing their attention plays out in the dining hall, some refer to a “rule of three.” In a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

One teacher observed that the students “sit in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things together, what they are sharing is what is on their phones.” Is this the new conversation? If so, it is not doing the work of the old conversation. The old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.

A Few of Turkle’s Suggested Strategies in Reclaiming Conversation

Her recommendations include the following:

  • “…(R)eclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible.”
  • “And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.”
  • Make space in your day and life for not having devices available.

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