Book Review: ‘Reclaiming Conversation: the power of talk in a digital age’ by Sherry Turkle.
By rob hopkins 18th April 2017 Culture & Society
This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. Essential reading for any parent, for anyone who interacts with digital technologies, social media, smartphones, indeed for anyone living in the complex world of 2017. It’s a book that had a deep impact on me, and I think it will on you too. Sherry Turkle (below) is a psychologist who has spent 30 years studying the psychology of how people relate to technology. Initially she researched what, in games, the avatars people created for themselves revealed about them. But as time went on, she became increasingly concerned with the impact that technologies, in particular the smartphone, are having on society, and in particular on our ability to seek out and sustain conversations with each other.
We find ourselves, she argues, at the beginning of a new “silent spring”, one in which “technology is implicated in an assault on empathy”, and where we are being “cured of talking”. While we live in a time when most of what we hear is the positives of these new technologies, their ability to enable us in our pursuit of the new, to keep in touch, to feel connected. “We like to hear [these stories]”, she reflects, “because if these are the only stories that matter, then we don’t have to attend to other feelings that persist – that we are somehow more lonely than before, that our children are less empathic than they should be for their age, and that it seems nearly impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation at a family dinner”.
Something is going horribly wrong, she suggests. Research shows that college students who have grown up with these technologies as commonplace are 40% less empathic than their equivalents 10 years before. It shows that frequent multitasking is associated with depression, social anxiety and trouble reading human emotions. It shows that even the presence of a phone, or open screens, degrade the ability of everyone who can see them to do the task they were doing before. Even putting your phone on the table during a meeting or a conversation has been shown to change the quality and depth of that conversation. Teachers report that children are not developing empathy in the way they should and not only struggle to sustain a conversation, but actively avoid putting themselves in situations where conversation will be required.
So why is conversation so important? As Turkle writes:
“It is the most human – and humanising – thing we do. Fully present to one another, we listen and learn. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life”.
Yet the amount of conversation actually taking place is in decline. We increasingly prefer to communicate via email, via Facebook, where we can edit ourselves, and minimise the risk that we will end up in conversations that are uncomfortable, that leave us exposed in some way. Some families now argue not in the kitchen, but over email, as they find it is somehow neater, more controlled, and less likely to spill over into family life. Some couples do the same, finding that having a record of their arguments means they have something to refer back to.
Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of our sense of “being connected”. As we detach from the conversations that since forever formed the bedrock of our culture, we imagine that the ability to be always connected will make us less lonely. And yet loneliness is a national epidemic. Three-quarters of older people identify as being lonely, and chronic loneliness has health impacts equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Yet ironically, at the root of our troubles with technology is that they deny us the opportunity, the possibility, of being alone, quiet, still.
As Turkle writes, “If we are unable to be alone, we will be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely”. Believing that we are in conversation through texting on our mobiles, rather than sitting with each other, means we miss out on the very kind of conversations we need, those that Turkle identifies as “artless, risky and face-to-face”.
We are experiencing what neuroscientist Richard Davidson calls a “national attention deficit”. The myth that we can “multitask” is a pervasive one, the idea that we can text while we read while we update our Facebook profile while we draft emails while we check the news while we plan our travel next week while we shop for shoes online. Yet all that multitasking does, research shows, is lead to us doing lots of things badly, as she puts it, “multitasking degrades performance”.
She calls for ‘unitasking’, consciously creating the space and self-control to relearn to do one thing at a time, and thereby to do it better. Many businesses are now learning that, as she puts it, “the more you talk to your colleagues, the greater your productivity”. Offices are being redesigned to maximise interaction and opportunities for conversation. Meetings are being designed with a ‘parking lot for smartphones’, and regular opportunities, say 10 minutes per hour, for people to check their phones.
This is a book that is so rich with fascinating research, and with implications, that I am still digesting it. That phone in your pocket is just a phone, right? No. As Turkle writes, “It’s not an accessory. It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are”. And yet this is not a depressing book. It is a powerful call to review and rethink your relationship to that phone, to the technology in your life. To redouble your efforts to not itch the scratch that arises in any quiet moment that offers the possibility of boredom to reach for our phone. The hopeful message of this book is “conversation can cure”. Research shows that after just 5 days at a summer camp that bans all electronic devices, children show greater empathy and attention.
For me, this book a powerful affirmation of the Transition approach, that where possible we seek to bring people together, to enable and foster conversation, to create spaces where people meet and imagine together. Might it be that the best antidote to loneliness, to the drifting apart of our communities, to the pervasive sense of hopelessness, is to enable, to invite, public conversations? As Turkle writes:
“A public conversation can model freedom of thought. It can model courage and compromise. It can help people think things through”.
I always start my talks by inviting people to introduce themselves to their neighbour. So far at least 3 couples have come up to me and said “you remember that talk in [wherever] where you said to turn to the person next to you? That’s how we met!” And there has been, so far as I know of, one baby that resulted from it.
If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It is delightfully readable, incredibly well-researched, rich with insight, and will make you rethink your relationship to that device in your pocket. And invite conversation back into your life, indeed to insist upon it. The kind of conversation that is slipping out of our culture, and out of our lives, the kind she describes as “a certain kind of face-to-face talk. Unplanned. Open-ended. The kind that takes time”.