Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle; published 2015 by Penguin Press
Do you ever feel anxiety when you don’t have your cell phone with you? Have you seen these pictures of people staring at their phones, ignoring the life happening right in front of them—ignoring each other? Have you seen crowds at a concert where more people are interested in “sharing” the experience than in, well, experiencing it?
A couple days ago I was in the car with my mom, and we were fascinated by the crazy wind swirling leaves all around us. It was nothing special—just a particularly blustery day. Without even thinking, I whipped out my phone and started recording, then shared it on my Snapchat story. Why? Who cares? Did anyone watch it? If anyone did, why should they care? There’s no reason to. So why did I feel compelled to share it?
Moments like these are explored in Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. She frames her discussion with the analogy of Henry David Thoreau’s three chairs: 1 for the self, 2 for others, and 3 for society as a whole.
Solitude is a foreign experience for most people nowadays—especially younger generations. Sure, I live alone and often there aren’t other people physically near me. But I’m often on social media or reading articles online. I’m very rarely bored, because I always have a source of entertainment right at my fingertips. But Turkle shows that solitude is a place where creativity can flourish—can you imagine letting yourself be bored? What wonderful things might you think up? In some ways, we’re cheating ourselves by not exercising our creativity muscles.
Turkle also discusses the importance of self-reflection, an exercise that is dying. I’ve been journaling for years, and this section made me appreciate again just how precious this practice is. Journaling is where I explore, develop empathy for others, repent, understand, and heal. I enjoy going back and reading old journals, just to reflect on how I’ve grown throughout my life. I was fascinated to learn about journaling apps like 750 words, which encourage you to write and then will give you a “report” on your emotions that day. It sounds like a great idea, but Turkle writes about one woman who “now writes what she thinks the program would like to hear.” That is, she doesn’t write what she’s actually feeling; instead, she writes to get certain positive/favorable results in her report every day. This is one example of how we begin to perform for technology.
How technology affects our moments with others
Kids are sometimes called “digital natives,” a misnomer implying that children are just somehow naturally more inclined to using technology. Of course that’s not true; children are taught to use technology, and they’re taught by their parents. Turkle reveals a heartbreaking pattern: parents use their phones too much, and often ignore their children; their children then learn that their parents do not want to connect with them authentically and that sharing emotions is discouraged, so they begin to turn to their own devices. And the cycle continues.
Family dinners and family meetings are a thing of the past—even for positive conversations. So you can imagine that resolving conflict, a skill that requires sitting through discomfort and tension, gets shifted to family conversations via email or text.
Friendships and romantic relationships are also impacted, as we read into texts: Why did it take him so long to respond? She used a period there, with no emoticon… is she mad at me?
How technology affects education and the workplace
As you may have heard or seen, devices in classrooms are becoming commonplace. Students are encouraged to bring their own device (BYOD), or, if the school/district can afford it, mobile devices are provided to students. Obama’s ConnectED Initiative promises that 99% of schools will have access to the Internet by 2018. On top of that, fully online educational experiences are catching fire. Did you know that you can take FREE online courses from Harvard, Columbia, UC Berkeley, and countless other prestigious universities? They’re called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
Full disclosure: in my day job, I edit books on exactly this topic. My authors write about educational technology all the time—and I can tell you that there are SO many benefits to students working with technology. But there are some downsides as well:
- “Collaboration” no longer means working with partners to find solutions; now it means working on a Google doc at the same time. This isn’t to say true collaboration can’t occur on a Google doc—but it often doesn’t. I know because I “collaborate” on Google docs all the time.
- Students lose the courage it takes to voice an opinion and defend it in front of their peers.
- Technology proponents often feel that direct instruction (aka “stand and deliver”—the type of education where the teacher is the disseminator of all knowledge and students are uninvolved recipients) is at best passe and at worst destructive. But there is power in a good lecture delivered well. Ever seen a TED Talk? Stand and deliver can work!
Technology is also changing the way we work. Employers are having to train recent graduates on how to use phones and hold professional conversations via phone. And I definitely relate. When I first started my job, authors would call me out of the blue, and my panicked mind would race: “Why are they calling? Why can’t this be handled via email?? I don’t know what to say!” It took me a couple months to get used to holding extended conversations with people via phone.
For those of us who work in office environments, you might also recognize “meetings” where nearly everyone is on a laptop, answering emails while others are talking. Tripp and Tyler created a great video, “Every Meeting Ever” which parodies real life office meetings. The “social networker” is all too common. (On a side note: this is my favorite office humor video of all time.)
Turkle’s main point is not at all that technology is bad. She does say that we rely too much on technology, and that it’s causing some real problems throughout society. We need to practice having periods of time without technology—to allow ourselves to feel emotions we may not want to feel, to practice compassion and empathy by sitting with others in their joys and pains, to reach understanding by patiently wading through tense moments with our loved ones, to allow ourselves to feel bored and start creating. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
This book was definitely eye-opening. One thing that struck me throughout was the experiences of children and teens today; they’re so different from my own! I’m only 26, and yet this book made me feel old. Children growing up today have a completely different experience of life and school than I did. Even college students—and I only graduated five years ago. It only shows that technology is changing at an alarmingly fast pace.
As I said above, I could relate to the experiences in each of the three domains: myself, with others, and in society. And I completely agree with Turkle’s recommendations. Since I started reading Reclaiming Conversation, I’ve been trying to consciously leave my phone at home for quick errands, be fully present at meetings, journal more, and resist my phone when I’m with other people.
My only complaint with the book is that it is just plain too long. It shouldn’t have been over 150 pages, rather than nearly 400. And I’m not just saying that because I’m addicted to technology and I can’t read long books; I read long books all the time. This one is just too long.