Friday, November 27, 2015


The semester is coming to an end at a rather alarming pace, but I decided to conveniently ignore that fact and do a little "fun" reading instead. 

I put the word "fun" in quotation marks because I'm well aware that what I consider "fun" is not necessarily what others consider "fun."

Moving on.  As regular readers of my blog know, I'm a big fan of the work of Sherry Turkle, so I was particularly excited to get my hot little hands on her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in A Digital Age (2015).

I came to this book after reading a blog post by a friend.  In effect, my friend wrote an open letter to Apple asking if she could please have her family back: smartphones had lured them away, both from each other and, apparently, from themselves.

Turkle's latest book addresses precisely the problems that my friend describes in her blog post-- namely, families (and individuals) who spend more time staring at screens than they do interacting with friends and fellow family members. 

With the advent of laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we seem to have lost the ability--or the willingness--to engage in face-to-face conversations, a problem that is becoming particularly acute for children and teens.  As Turkle points out,
Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and message, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.  They didn't grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk. (12)
In the place of conversation, Turkle argues, we have provided myriad opportunities for mere connection.  We connect with people via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, email, texting or other social media platforms, but we don't thereby converse with them.

Electronic communications like texts or emails typically focus on communicating information.  Conversations, however, perform a different kind of emotional "work." It is a work that can be both time-consuming and disjointed or messy, but it is, in the end, highly necessary to our very existence as human beings. 

As Turkle points out, many--if not most--people prefer to communicate via email or text not only because it renders the exchange more efficient, but also because it allows for a greater sense of control.  You can "edit" yourself ahead of time and craft the "self" you wish to present to your e-locutor--this is one of the much-touted advantages of electronic communication.

The problem is, as scientists have recently discovered, "the parts of the brain that allow us to process another person's feelings and intentions are activated by eye contact" (170). 

So, if you're still wondering why that email or text exchange with that person you really do love and care about went so terribly, terribly wrong, and how it's possible that the two of you could so misunderstand each others' good intentions, wonder no more. 

Because you were typing and texting instead of looking each other in the eye, there's a good chance that your brain missed all kinds of cues that would have enabled you to perceive the other person's feelings and intentions before things became so horribly derailed.

And if you think, "Well, but I use emojis and emoticons and I'm real good with the whole punctuation thing," think again.  Scientists have studied the use of emojis and emoticons and punctuation in the communication of feelings and intentions.

And no, their effect is not the same--or as effective--as eye contact and face-to-face communication.

What I have always liked about Turkle's work is the fact that, despite her warnings about its (often negative) psychological effects, she isn't anti-technology. 

Instead, Turkle advocates a greater awareness of the psychological effects of technology and the nature of our relationship with it, in order to make us more cognizant of the choices we could--and should--consider making when we turn to our devices.

Take, for example, the often-heard claim that we are "addicted" to our phones.  Turkle argues that it is unhelpful to frame our relationship with our devices in these terms because our devices aren't drugs (no, really, they aren't). 

Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other forms of technology serve a purpose; unlike heroin or crack, we aren't simply turning to them for the "high" that they offer.  They're quite useful, when used thoughtfully and deliberately.

At the same time, however, Turkle also acknowledges that technology offers a certain allure that is very hard to resist.  In fact, she argues, "we are all vulnerable to the emotional gratifications that our phones offer--and we are neurochemically rewarded when we attend to their constant stimulation" (125-126).

Let's say it again: we're vulnerable.  Devices like smartphones make many things easy--and that's not  a bad thing. 

On the other hand, however, given that we are "wired to crave what neuroscientists call 'the seeking drive'," a drive that is fulfilled by scrolling through apps or a Facebook newsfeed or a Twitter feed, we are at risk when we overindulge in our use of technology or when we use it without recognizing the neurochemical responses it provokes in our brains--the needs it feeds without ever satisfying.

As Turkle points out, many people testify to precisely the misgivings that she is articulating.  Some people have even begun to take action.  They now buy "retro" phones which allow them to talk and text, but which don't allow for the installation of numerous apps.  They set aside "device-free" or "wireless-free" times and locations: instead of being "always on," they deliberately choose to be "occasionally off."

Ultimately, Turkle's advice is simple: remember that your phone isn't an accessory.  It's a "psychologically potent device" that provokes neurochemical stimuli and seems to reward them (albeit temporarily).  So use it with care and with caution, and be aware of what you need it for, and why. 

To the extent that, as Turkle argues, your smartphone "changes not just what you do but who you are" (319), you need to be cognizant of what you want it to do and why, so that you can remain in control of "who you are" and who you want to be.

You probably don't want to be some wrinkled old geezer who sits all alone, staring at a phone.  So stop staring at it all the time: look around and look at other people.  Turn it off, from time to time, and ride out the uneasy feelings that you'll initially experience when you do. 

They'll eventually subside and in their place will come a new set of feelings and connections: ones born of eye contact and conversation and commitment.  

In the end, Turkle's most powerful advice is quite simple: "We don't have to give up our phones, but we have to use them more deliberately.  And sometimes, just as deliberately, we need to take a break" (316).


  1. Wow! This book is definitely on my reading list now. Excellent post! :)
    Someone came up with a solution:
    On a funnier note, have you heard of the "no-phone"? Check it out:

  2. The "Light Phone" idea is right up Turkle's alley, actually. She insists that consumers should direct cell phone technology, instead of the other way around, and that's exactly what seems to be driving that venture. (She also mentions that in fact, the "younger" generation seems to be realizing that it's beneficial to disconnect.)

    I'd like to believe that it's the wave of the future, because if nothing else, when companies encourage face-to-face conversation, productivity significantly increases--so having time to "unitask" instead of multitasking may be gaining support.

    Love the "No Phone." Wish I could afford one of those. ;)


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."