Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle, is one of the most important books for right now in both interpersonal relationships and public discourse. The main thesis: Digital technologies have consumed the time and spaces for conversations in our lives, and we are raising generations of young adults and children who don’t know how to have conversations. I found this book recommended in several places, and I am so glad I picked it up. (Actually, I listened to it read by Kirsten Potter — who was great!) I usually only recommend books on this blog that I think a wide range of people should read, and this is one of them. Why? Because the problems with our use of technology that Turkle addresses are problems that touch the daily interactions of 99% of the people I know, including myself! I wasn’t really surprised by anything in the book, but I was extremely surprised by how little I had previously considered the full impact of our devices on our relationships and our culture.
Though I don’t think people would describe me as someone who is “on her phone all the time,” I realized that I had allowed my phone (and the pull of everything on it) to be all too “present” to me at all times. I wasn’t too many pages in before I made some immediate changes to my iPhone notification settings and started to conceptualize an intentional use of digital devices in my life and the rhythms of our family. The book contained so many important critiques of technology, questions regarding normative uses of it, and sobering realities of its impact on us. Here are a few such points that grabbed my attention:
Lack of Empathy
Devices have created a lack of empathy in our culture and our children. When kids talk to other kids on screens, they don’t develop empathy; they don’t learn to interact empathically with other human beings. They don’t see how their actions hurt (or help) someone else. Turkle says, “The development of empathy needs face-to-face conversation, and it needs eye contact.” Is it surprising that cyber bullying is such a problem? No.
Connections Instead of Conversations
We are highly connected, but we aren’t having that many conversations. We have given up conversation for the efficiency of connection, and we have failed to notice the difference between the two. As Turkle puts it, we are “living moments of more and lives of less.” Connections don’t make us vulnerable the way that conversations do; we have control, or we think we do. I started thinking about all the ways that I “connect” with friends, and the frequency with which I do it, compared to the amount of conversations I have face-to-face with them. I wish I had more of the face-to-face, more eye contact, more undivided attention; and it is good that I want that.
Confusing Solitude with Loneliness
Throughout the book Turkle paints a disturbing picture of individuals panicked at the thought of being alone…without a phone. In fact, she says, that at the first “lonely” moment, the first moment when nothing is going on, people instinctively reach for their phones to see what is going on anywhere else. She cautions that if we are unable to be alone, embracing the gifts that solitude brings, we will end up being very lonely indeed. Moreover, if we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will be very lonely as well. Turkle elaborates on how the “Facebook zone” breaks down the foundation of solitude. Most college students have an anxiety about boredom, and their idea of solitude is aimlessly surfing the web.
One of the most concerning revelations from Turkle’s research is that we have become accustomed to a life of constant distraction. We are rarely living in the present without being constantly interrupted with emails, texts, and any number of notifications. Since reading this book, I notice it everywhere! I see people eating, walking, and talking with phones in hand, even if they aren’t staring down at them (though they mostly are), ready for any number of notifications to take them away from the moment that is present to them, the person right in front of them, or the experience that they won’t realize they just missed. Turkle demonstrates how being able to go anywhere on our phones at anytime usually keeps us from being where we currently are, and from having the conversation we could be having with the person right in front of us.
The “Online Real”
Toward the end of the book Turkle addresses how our digital technology has impacted our ideas about what constitutes social action, and she could not be more spot on. People now feel like they are social activists without having to actually do anything about social ills. They click a “Like” button, change their profile picture, write a Tweet, or donate to a GoFundMe account, and there is the illusion that they have participated in a larger conversation. But this is not public discourse, and this is not what it means to contribute to a social dialogue or cause.
These are just some highlights of key issues addressed in the book, and I hope they have sparked enough interest for you to read it for yourself. I think you will come away sobered by technology’s impact on our lives and culture, but inspired to be much more intentional with your use of it. Quite frankly, though the book’s anecdotes and stories from field research caused me a good amount of alarm, the book is ultimately hopeful of our ability to reclaim conversation and the spaces where it lives. We can intentionally use technology and our devices, and we can regain the ground that has been lost. Ultimately, our ability to be honest with the powerful pull of technology in our lives will give us an insight into areas of vulnerability and human weakness, pointing out the dark places of our souls where the Light needs to shine.