“The Flight from Conversation” by Sherry Turkle, her opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, suggests that our connectedness to and by electronic gadgets have changed “not only what we do, but who we are.” I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Turkle speak at the Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, SC in December 2011 on this and related subjects. She claims that people are alone together. “We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one.”
Some examples from Turkle you may relate to:
“We want to go to a meeting but pay attention only to what interests us.”
“Young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones.” Turkle told of a partner at a Boston law firm who described a scene of associates in his office who come in and lay out their “suite of technologies: laptops, iPads and multiple phones. Next they proceed to put on a pair of large earphones. It’s like pilots in their cockpits. There is a silence that suggests they don’t want to be disturbed.
It’s not just enjoying the use of tech toys. Social media, e-mail and texting enable us to present ourselves as we would like to be, which may not be how we are, observes Turkle. We can edit, create avatars, perfect photos. We can clean up messy and demanding human relationships with technology.
Turkle says “sips” of online connection (all of which have their place) don’t add up to a big gulp of real conversation and don’t add up to really knowing each other. Nuance is missing. It’s dumbed down, like watching only cable news headlines. And lack of conversation translates to missing development of self-reflection skills, so we are cheating ourselves as well.
Turkle gave some examples of how some people are seemingly desperate for someone to listen to them but seek out Siri (on Apple’s iPhone) or some other surrogate for the person they really should be conversing with because it’s more comfortable. “We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship,” wrote Turkle.
“I am a partisan of conversation,” she wrote. “To make room for it I see some first deliberate steps.” She goes on to suggest ways to create device-free rules, times and spaces at home, work and vacation. “Most of all, we need to remember to listen to each other, even the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another,” Turkle stated.
We tend to associate constant electronic communication and being tethered to those gadgets with the youngest generations. Is that actually true? Haven’t older workers caught the fever too? Are they fleeing from real conversation?
Clearly I sympathize with Turkle’s view since the Cross-Generational Conversation group I started and moderate on Linkedin is one conscious attempt to get people of different generations conversing and sharing their perspectives. (Do check it out!)
But is the situation quite as bad as she points out, and how far can we modify the current habits? Here are some questions that come to mind:
- What would motivate people to adopt device-free actions that Turkle suggests? (in meetings, at home, on vacations, in cars)
- Are electronic connections keeping us from connecting emotionally?
- Are many of us avoiding the messiness of relationships and self-reflection in a delusionary effort to seek perfection?
- Is Turkle’s view an over-reaction?
- What other questions does this issue raise for you?
Please comment and share your thoughts.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot www.pdcounsel.com