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Reclaiming Conversation in the Digital Age

In her new book, a sociologist and MIT professor probes the slippery slopes that manifest in our technological advancements — and prods us to consider the tough decisions we must make in how we, and our children, live in this new world.

In her important new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle voices cautionary tales for how technology — most specifically, smartphones — is diminishing our ability to have meaningful face-to-face conversations.

Now, Turkle is no Luddite; she’s a psychologist, sociologist and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — a solid and longtime resident of the tech world. There's no doubt that living at ground zero for technology innovation has made her especially mindful of its potential adverse effects. And though her book’s focus on middle class young people (many of whom are bound for or already attending elite schools) can be off-putting, most of us who spend time with young people will, as we read, resonate with her key points — if we share her premise that one’s ability to have face-to-face conversation is an essential part of being human, that is.

So how, in this widespread and mostly unquestioned adoption of our ever-present smartphones, did we go astray? How did we get to this place where smartphone-owning adults are seduced to check their phones every six minutes (and with greater frequency for young people)? And what are the tolls these interruptions take on our relationships with family, friends, co-workers and loved ones?

Turkle’s book is a call to action that effectively describes the issues. And her insightful interviews with young people bring the book to life. But she’s weaker on the solutions side. And given the systemic tentacles stretched across our always connected society, there really are no easy solutions. The genie is out of the bottle, and most of us currently have little appetite or ability to get it back in. But at what cost?

Most disturbingly, Turkle identifies a growing loss of empathy among young people as a major side effect of their online relationships. She points out that the psychological markers for empathy among current college students are down 40 percent from 20 years ago. No surprise, when young people script their communications with friends through texting and social media, the absence of eye contact and body language leaves them desensitized to the power of their words. And when these same young people spend much of their time together focused on what’s coming through on their phones, their loss of personal connections to those around them is diminished.

To be sure, this isn’t just a problem for young people. Adults are also susceptible to the allure of virtual relationships. But most adults who came of age in the pre-cell phone era were raised to be empathic. And hopefully when they’re not, they'll know what they’re missing and will seek ways to reconcile their disconnectedness. This is less true for young people, and the implications of their empathic loss are being borne out. Turkle describes their diminished abilities to listen to one another, and to understand the importance of the different ways people live, think and behave.

To offset these growing imbalances, Turkle highlights the need for our young people to have mentors who are focused on what’s most important in relationships, and maintain an upper hand on technology’s intrusion into their lives. Parents are the most obvious ones to assume this mentorship role. However, as Turkle cites through many of her interviews in the book, parents are often the worst offenders. Many parents rarely stray far from their phones during designated family time: dinners, excursions, vacations and idle time together with their children. And yet these same parents are likely frustrated with the amount of time their kids spend tethered to their own devices. So as parents, we need to step up and do the right thing.

And what about in the K-12 and higher-ed classrooms where many of us spend our professional lives? While pushing to outfit our schools with 21st-century classrooms and provide our students with laptops or tablets, how do we also instill in young people the importance of living balanced lives with technology? Aside from blocking and banning (no cell phones in class, filtering for social media, texting and YouTube, etc.,), what less draconian and more effective methods can we employ to ensure these powerful tools at our students’ disposal are used for good?

As is our wont, we often try to solve tech-related problems by developing new technology solutions. But I’m with Turkle: There are no apps that will really help us here. Try as we might, there will be no tech solutions developed that can teach empathy. There will likely be more conscientious raising apps created that appeal to our good intentions. Perhaps new apps that monitor our phone use and remind us to be more mindful of those around us. But, like most current diet and exercise apps, the effectiveness of these solutions will be short lived. Instead, I share Turkle’s conviction that we must all remain vigilant about the most important aspects of our shared humanity. And we must exert our will over the seductive aspects of technologies. And, most importantly, we must model and expect this of our young people.

In Reclaiming Conversation, as in her previous books and research, Turkle continues to probe the slippery slopes that manifest in our technological advancements. And she prods us to consider the tough decisions we must make in how we, and our children, live in this new world.