On Friday night I attended a talk by Sherry Turkle called “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”. Here are my notes.
Turkle is an anthropologist who interviews people from different generations about their communication habits. She has observed cross-generational changes thanks to (a) the proliferation of instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger; and (b) fast web searching from smartphones.
Her main concern is that conversation is being trivialised. Consider six or seven college students eating a meal together. Turkle’s research has shown that the etiquette among such a group has shifted such that so long as at least three people are engaged in conversation, others at the table feel comfortable turning their attention to their smartphones. But then the topics of verbal conversation will tend away from serious issues – you wouldn’t talk about your mother’s recent death if anyone at the table was texting.
There are also studies that purport to show that the visibility of someone’s smartphone causes them to take a conversation less seriously. The hypothesis is that the smartphone is a reminder of all the other places they could be, instead of with the person they are with.
A related cause of the trivialisation of conversation is that people are far less willing to make themselves emotionally vulnerable by talking about serious matters. People have a high degree of control over the interactions that take place electronically (they can think about their reply for much longer, for example). Texting is not open-ended in the way a face-to-face conversation is. People are unwilling to give up this control, so they choose texting over talking.
What is the upshot of these two respects in which conversation is being trivialised? Firstly, there are psycho-social effects on individuals, because people are missing out on opportunities to build relationships. But secondly, there are political effects. Disagreeing about politics immediately makes a conversation quite serious, and people just aren’t having those conversations. This contributes to polarisation.
Note that this is quite distinct from the problems of fake news and the bubbling effects of search engine algorithms, including Facebook’s news feed. It would be much easier to tackle fake news if people talked about it with people around them who would be likely to disagree with them.
Turkle understands connection as a capacity for solitude and also for conversation. The drip feed of information from the Internet prevents us from using our capacity for solitude. But then we fail to develop a sense of self. Then when we finally do meet other people in real life, we can’t hear them because we just use them to try to establish a sense of self.
Turkle wants us to be more aware of the effects that our smartphones can have on conversations. People very rarely take their phone out during a conversation because they want to escape from that conversation. Instead, they think that the phone will contribute to that conversation, by sharing some photos, or looking up some information online. But once the phone has come out, the conversation almost always takes a turn for the worse. If we were more aware of this, we would have access to deeper interactions.
A further respect in which the importance of conversation is being downplayed is in the relationships between teachers and students. Students would prefer to get answers by e-mail than build a relationship with their professors, but of course they are expecting far too much of e-mail, which can’t teach them in the way interpersonal contact can.
All the above is, as I said, cross-generational. Something that is unique to millenials and below is that we seek validation for the way that we feel using social media. A millenial is not sure how they feel until they send a text or make a broadcast (this makes them awfully dependent on others). Older generations feel something, and then seek out social interaction (presumably to share, but not in the social media sense of ‘share’).
What does Turkle think we can do about all this? She had one positive suggestion and one negative suggestion. In response to student or colleague e-mails asking for something that ought to be discussed face-to-face, reply “I’m thinking.” And you’ll find they come to you. She doesn’t want anyone to write “empathy apps” in response to her findings. For once, more tech is definitely not the answer.