Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, had an unusual request for the crowd of 300 on Friday night in the Environment and Natural Resources 2 building: please talk.
Turkle gave a lecture titled “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” which is also the title of her latest book. She started off by explaining that since the book was first published a year ago, her talk on it has changed.
“A lot has happened since then, so I’m giving a very different lecture than I would have a year ago,” Turkle said. “‘Reclaiming Conversation’ is such an upbeat and optimistic book. It will need an update. I didn’t take quite into account how much damage our not talking to each other had done to very basic and politically relevant things.”
Turkle said the idea for this book came right after she finished her last one. As she was putting away the transcripts and research from the 15-year study her last book required, she said one phrase “jumped out across generations” and showed her there was something she had not talked about.
“‘I would rather text than talk’ was the phrase that jumped out at me,” Turkle said. “But it wasn't about texting. It was this desire to stay behind the safety of that screen and not expose themselves to the vulnerability of that face-to-face conversation, where things could go off on a tangent.”
Turkle began to look back over her work, which she describes as an intimate ethnography.
“It’s not that people are silent, they’re just finding ways around that face-to-face conversation,” Turkle said. “Conversation does a very particular kind of work. It’s where empathy grows and connections start. It fosters engagement.”
She said while we often take out our phones during a conversation to show photos or research an event, thinking we’re doing the conversation a favor, it’s actually the opposite.
Turkle cited a Pew study that showed 89 percent of Americans took out a phone in their last conversation, and then 82 percent, after reflection, said it actually diminished the conversation.
A different study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology found a 40 percent decline in people’s empathy, with most of the decline in the last 10 years. Turkle suggested it had to do with the presence of phones and other devices.
“A phone is like a subliminal message about all the others elsewheres we can be,” Turkle said. “Conversations tend towards less weighty matters when a phone is out.”
Turkle also said device use causes people to pay a price in their capacity for solitude, and there is a profound connection between the capacity for solitude and the capacity for conversation.
“Solitude means you have to connect with who you are,” Turkle said. “People need to go to their phones, not because there’s something on their phone, but because they cannot be with themselves.”
She said this is not a problem of millennials, but a problem of everyone who has been smitten by technology.
“We need to reteach the value of solitude to our kids, but that’s difficult because we’ve lost it too,” Turkle said.
Across generations, these problems come down to disconnection anxiety.
“Mostly it's anxiety that leads us back to our phones,” Turkle said. “That’s the message of our messages. We want to be on someone’s radar. We want them to care.”
Marco Garcia, an information science senior at UA, attended the talk with his friends, neuroscience senior Sydney Sunna and Management Information Systems senior Alexandra Gomez.
Garcia said he had heard phrases that Turkle used before, like “together but alone,” and wanted to learn more about how his phone could be affecting his day-to-day life.
“We just don’t question how much we use our phones anymore,” Garcia said.
Sunna said she came because Garcia told her about the talk, but Gomez was encouraged to attend by a professor.
“I read a little about this speaker, and the idea that I would rather text than talk was true for me for sure,” Gomez said.
Turkle spoke about what she called the “college kid’s rule of three.” She said it was the idea that in a conversation of six people, three people have to have their heads up, talking, in order for the other three to feel permission to put their heads down to text.
Sunna said she hadn’t noticed anything like that, but Gomez said she had experienced the rule of three earlier in the day with a group of friends.
Garcia said he saw that rule come into play at parties more than anywhere else.
“When you’re past the peak of the party, and it’s kind of starting to wind down, people will start going on their phones, doing that,” Garcia said. “I guess it’s soothing if you don’t have anything to say.”
As for solitude, Sunna said she misses it.
“I really like my alone time, but lately I’ve been filling whatever down time I have with Reddit,” Sunna said. “I don’t know why. There’s something to that.”
Garcia said he had been trying lately to be alone with himself more and has found it takes a conscious effort, but not because he feels disconnection anxiety.
“It feels pretty good, but it’s hard because I feel like I’m not being productive,” Garcia said. “But once I get passed that, after, I feel like I have more direction.”
Gomez agreed that taking the time to be alone with yourself can feel like a waste when you have so many other obligations.
“I have positions in three separate organizations, so I’m always expected to be able to get back to people quickly,” Gomez said. “I definitely want to try to change some of my habits, though. I’m guilty of being always surrounded by tech.”
The talk was put on by UA’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, the College of Humanities, the School of Information, Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and UA Libraries.
Follow Marissa Heffernan on Twitter