Talk amongst your­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Washington Post.

Our phones have de­stroyed con­ver­sa­tion. Dis­cuss.

You’re at the din­ner ta­ble, or in a meet­ing, or at a base­ball game, or in the class­room, or in your bed­room, or at a bar or, yes, in the bath­room— and you’re on your phone. You might be talk­ing, but more likely you’re tex­ting, post­ing, swip­ing, lik­ing, tweet­ing, buy­ing, brows­ing or, inmy fa­vorite metaphor of dig­i­tal ex­is­tence, “re­fresh­ing,” as though life’s stal­e­ness can be washed away with ev­ery new, fully re­al­ized screen.

This is the world of in­ces­sant con­nec­tion, and for all the com­mu­ni­ca­tion it sup­pos­edly pro­vides, it’s de­stroy­ing one es­sen­tial thing: open-ended con­ver­sa­tion. “We are be­ing si­lenced by our tech­nolo­gies,” Sherry Turkle warns, “in away, ‘cured of talk­ing.’” And that si­lence means our abil­ity to re­late to oth­ers is dis­ap­pear­ing, too. “We face a flight from con­ver­sa­tion that is also a flight from sel­f­re­flec­tion, em­pa­thy, and men­tor­ship.”

A psy­chol­o­gist and the di­rec­tor of MIT’s Ini­tia­tive on Tech­nol­ogy and Self, Turkle has stud­ied our re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy for decades, show­cas­ing her find­ings in works such as “Life on the Screen” and “Alone To­gether.” And while it is tempt­ing to lump “Re­claim­ing Con­ver­sa­tion” with so many tech-skep­tic man­i­festos— such as Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gad­get” or Ni­cholas Carr’s “The Shal­lows”— and as­sume we’ve heard it all be­fore, that would be a dis­ser­vice to au­thor and reader. This is a per­sua­sive and in­ti­mate book, one that ex­plores the minu­tiae of hu­man re­la­tion­ships. Turkle uses our ex­pe­ri­ences to shame us, show­ing how, phones in hand, we turn away from our chil­dren, friends and co-work­ers, even from our­selves.

“I had three chairs inmy house,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden”; “one for soli­tude, two for friend­ship, three for so­ci­ety.” Thoreau’s chairs are a re­cur­ring theme for Turkle. Soli­tude, with the self-aware­ness it af­fords, helps us un­der­stand our­selves, she ar­gues, which is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing oth­ers. Our con­ver­sa­tions with other peo­ple— at home and school, in the work­place and the public square— put that em­pa­thy to work, sharp­en­ing our ca­pac­ity for in­tro­spec­tion. Re­flect, talk, re­peat.

But tech­nol­ogy in­ter­rupts this cy­cle; it ends con­ver­sa­tion. Our re­la­tion­ships now come stamped with “the as­sump­tion of di­vided at­ten­tion,” Turkle ex­plains. Re­claim­ing con­ver­sa­tion is about “re­claim­ing our most fun­da­men­tal hu­man val­ues.”

We are drawn to those sleek de­vices— al­ways in our hands or al­ways at hand— be­cause they seem to grant three wishes: “First, thatwe will al­ways be heard; sec­ond, thatwe can put our at­ten­tion wher­ever we want it to be; and third, thatwe will never have to be alone.” A fourth wish, Turkle ex­plains, is im­plied: thatwe will never be bored.

But in the rush to be heard by peo­ple far away, we lose those clos­est to us. “Many young peo­ple are grow­ing up with­out ever hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced un­bro­ken con­ver­sa­tions ei­ther at the din­ner ta­ble or when they take a walk with par­ents or friends,” Turkle writes. She shows chil­dren con­fronting their par­ents—“Daddy! Stop Googling! I want to talk to you!”— and notes that even well-in­ten­tioned par­ent­ing can back­fire. A 37-year-old fa­ther goes on a school field trip with his 7-year-old, but spends his time post­ing and shar­ing photos about it. “All of a sud­den I re­al­ize as I’m sit­ting there that Si­mone has been sit­ting there for, like, an hour, with­out me say­ing a word to her,” he tells Turkle. Even when we think we’re most en­gaged, our phones sep­a­rate us.

Chil­dren learn that “no mat­ter what they do, they will not win adults away from tech­nol­ogy,” Turkle writes. “We see chil­dren de­prived not only of words but of adults who will look them in the eye.”

The longer they are de­nied, and the longer they im­merse them­selves in their own de­vices, the harder it is for chil­dren to re­late to peers as they grow older, Turkle em­pha­sizes. The phone be­comes a refuge. “When I go to check my mes­sages, I am tech­ni­cally go­ing to check for which peo­ple reached out to me,” ex­plains Ar­jun, a col­lege se­nior. “But let’s say I see there are no new mes­sages. Then I just start to check things— Twit­ter, In­sta­gram, Face­book — the fa­mil­iar places to me. Now, it’s just the phone that is a com­fort. The phone that is the friend.” Fear of miss­ing out, Turkle writes, has be­come fear of miss­ing any­thing.

Col­lege stu­dents see con­stant con­nec­tion “as a ne­ces­sity,” the au­thor re­ports. Nine out of 10 ad­mit to tex­ting in class, and one de­scribed her phone as an “in­sur­ance pol­icy” against bore­dom— a telling no­tion when we con­sider that be­ing bored can pro­pel cre­ativ­ity. “Child­hood bore­dom is a driver,” Turkle writes. “It sparks imag­i­na­tion. . . . Ne­go­ti­at­ing bore­dom is a sig­nal de­vel­op­men­tal achieve­ment.” In­stead, we skip it.

By adult­hood, the ubiq­uity of the phone and the apps we ac­cess have not only stunted iden­tity but con­fused it. A 34-year-old woman ad­mits to Turkle that she spends time online per­form­ing “a bet­ter ver­sion of her­self— one that will play well to her fol­low­ers.” Our fo­cus shifts from re­flec­tion to self-pre­sen­ta­tion and in­stant feed­back. “We are asked to see our­selves as the col­lec­tion of things we are told we should want,” Turkle laments. “Is this a ti­dier ver­sion of iden­tity?”

At work, screens and tabs de­mand our at­ten­tion. Young em­ploy­ees be­lieve they are max­i­miz­ing, but “when we think we are mul­ti­task­ing,” Turkle writes, “our brains are ac­tu­ally mov­ing quickly from one thing to the next, and our per­for­mance de­grades for each new task we add.” The re­sults are com­i­cally de­press­ing. A young man­age­ment con­sul­tant jumps on Face­book dur­ing a client meet­ing be­cause, she said, her “part” of the pre­sen­ta­tion was done. A fi­nan­cial ser­vices em­ployee feigns ill­ness so he can stay home, avoid tech­no­log­i­cal dis­trac­tions and ac­tu­ally com­plete an as­sign­ment. A Chicago law part­ner gives an in­ter­nal pre­sen­ta­tion to a room full of col­leagues tex­ting and e-mail­ing. Her topic? In­trafirm com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Tech­nol­ogy even pur­ports to make ro­mance ef­fi­cient but in­stead com­pli­cates it fur­ther, with dat­ing apps pro­vid­ing the il­lu­sion of in­fi­nite choice. When your lover gets out of bed, why not steal a mo­ment to swipe through a few po­ten­tials? “When peo­ple are just a click away,” a col­lege se­nior ex­plains, “it is tempt­ing to never set­tle.”

And when re­la­tion­ships are me­di­ated through text mes­sages more than face-to-face en­coun­ters, com­pli­ca­tions mul­ti­ply. Turkle of­fers the sad story of Adam, 36, who pores over three years of texts be­tween him and his ex, some 30 to 50 mes­sages each day, try­ing to un­der­stand what went wrong. He crafted his mes­sages care­fully but al­ways as­sumed hers were spon­ta­neous. Nowhe isn’t sure and won­ders if his “in-per­son self ” failed to mea­sure up. He parses punc­tu­a­tion of old texts, a pris­oner of his archive. “How do you know some­one in a true way?” Adam asks.

We think our de­vices de­liver com­fort and ef­fi­ciency, but, in Turkle’s telling, they of­fer lone­li­ness and dis­ar­ray. “Ev­ery time you check your phone in com­pany,” she re­minds, “what you gain is a hit of stim­u­la­tion, a neu­ro­chem­i­cal shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, par­ent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”

Ev­ery­one can find some­thing in “Re­claim­ing Con­ver­sa­tion” to in­duce guilt. (Con­fes­sion: I’ve been that Face­book-post­ing dad.) Still, Turkle places much blame on one tech­nol­ogy, and at times it’s overkill. I don’t re­call all our re­la­tion­ships be­ing bliss­fully ful­fill­ing be­fore smart­phones. Weren’t we bowl­ing alone in the mid-1990s al­ready? “We can­not know if the par­ents we see ig­nor­ing chil­dren would be more at­ten­tive if they didn’t have phones,” Turkle ad­mits. “What we do know is that our phones are se­duc­tive.” Tele­vi­sion was seen that­way as well, but some­how Turkle con­sid­ers it more be­nign. “If you take ad­van­tage of the fact that it can be used so­cially,” she writes, “it can also bring fam­i­lies to­gether.”

The au­thor’s pre­scrip­tions of­ten read like cap­tions for cor­po­rate mo­ti­va­tional posters. “Slow down.” “Pro­tect your cre­ativ­ity.” “Cre­ate sa­cred spa­ces for con­ver­sa­tions.” Some sug­ges­tions seem ob­vi­ous, but per­haps there are times when we need to hear ob­vi­ous things. “In­stead of do­ing your email as you push your daugh­ter in her stroller, talk to her,” Turkle writes. “In­stead of putting a dig­i­tal tablet in your son’s baby bouncer, read to him and chat about the book.” And she hopes, per­haps too op­ti­misti­cally, that the de­sign of tech­nol­ogy will be­gin to al­le­vi­ate— rather than ex­ploit— our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

To her credit, Turkle doesn’t ask us to get rid of our phones al­to­gether. They “are facts of life and part of our cre­ative lives,” she writes. “The goal is to use them with greater in­ten­tion.” As Thoreau might say, more de­lib­er­ately.

RE­CLAIM­ING CON­VER­SA­TION The Power of Talk in a Dig­i­tal Age By Sherry Turkle Pen­guin. 436 pp. $27.95

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.