Photo: Marcel Steger/Corbis
My children, young American teenagers, don’t have cellphones yet. They think I’m monstrously out of touch with the century into which they were born. I think I’m conflicted and all over the place on this issue. As the editor of IEEE Spectrum, I could be showering them with all the latest and greatest devices. But I’m not, entirely.
I’m uncomfortable with their technology use and look for ways to minimize it. When I visit their school and see them hunched over their laptops typing while the teacher waves her hand at the classroom smart board, I feel disconcerted, just as I do when I’m in an adult meeting and no one is making eye contact, instead looking down, or perhaps under the table, at a glowing screen.
I don’t feel any need for them to be texting from the dugout during baseball practice. Watching their friends do it gives me the same unnerved feeling I get in an elevator full of people communicating with everyone but the people they are standing next to. In addition to screen time, I have rules about headphone time and about Internet usage.
Yet I’m guilty of all the same behavior, and more: checking e-mail while standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, texting from a friend’s memorial service, scanning my phone for information about the chronology of geological formations while helping my son with his homework. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.
And now I know why I experience such cognitive dissonance about the technology I also promote and cherish. In her brilliant new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (Penguin Press), Sherry Turkle has distilled and explained the ambivalence many of us feel about being, along with our families and friends and colleagues, always on.
Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. A clinical psychologist and devoted student of the impact of technology on human behavior, she has, for decades, chronicled the psychological impact our connected devices have on us as individuals and communities and cultures.
In Reclaiming Conversation, her thesis is that our phones and devices are changing not only what we do but also who we are, and not for the better. Based on her fieldwork, it seems that many of us are using our phones ostensibly to keep in touch but also to keep the messiness of actual human relationships and the physical world around us at a safe distance, at arm’s length. Living in these self-created vacuums is zapping our ability to experience our unique capacity for empathy and intuition, for curiosity and imagination, the remarkable human characteristics that distinguish us from our very clever devices.
Turkle’s solutions don’t involve going all Thoreau and tossing our pocket screens away. Some involve ingenious engineering. Why not build a phone designed to do a task and release us, she says. What if companies measured device success not as a function of lots of time spent on them but as a function of time well spent?
The bulk of her correctives center on reclaiming face time from screen time, and reprioritizing the value of in-person conversation and active listening over texting and Facebooking, Snapchatting and tweeting.
If we have these conversations with our children now, in person, perhaps they’ll remember that technologies wield power and change us, really change us, as augmented reality, virtual reality, maybe even brain prosthetics, push into their world.
So I think I’ll read them snippets of Turkle’s book. Or listen to it with them in the car. They’ll roll their eyes impatiently while we try to talk about it at dinner. But Reclaiming Conversations contains antidotes to the tech-user dilemmas that will confront them as they’re raising their own spawn.