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A conversation with MIT's Sherry Turkle about conscious consumption of tech

Author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle discusses how tech devices change the nature of our conversations at work and in our personal lives.

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What does the presence of a mobile device do to a conversation? Just as yawns are contagious, checking your mobile device often is as well.

Image: Peter Urban
In the context of constant connectivity and the pull of social media and messaging platforms, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that we need to make conscious consumption part of our lives. Her recommendations go beyond configuring our mobile devices or social media accounts to notify us when we want them to do so, partially unwiring during a vacation or taking a "digital detox," although all of those choices have value. Turkle is asking us to rethink how we're integrating technology into our relationships with one another, shifting to being fully present with people around us, not fracturing our attention. It's a timely provocation.

My interview with Turkle about technology, society, and her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, follows, lightly edited for length, content, and clarity.

SEE: How our attachment to tech is downgrading our conversations: A word with Sherry Turkle

Alex B. Howard: Your book dives into all of the ways people are communicating today and how they feel about them. It was impossible not to find some of these stories to be personally relevant. I'm wired myself, and I'm thinking through my digital choices, especially now that I have a toddler.

Sherry Turkle: The most poignant interview, for me, is of a young father, about 37, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter. He thinks back to when he had his 11-year-old and when he used to give her a bath. He used to sit with her when she was in the bath, quietly, and let her play with her little toys in the bathtub. They would make up stories and sometimes sing along, sometimes not. These were the most precious times he spent with her. Now, he sits down next to her in the bathroom, and he does his email on his iPhone. He says "I know I shouldn't, but I can't help myself."

That story encapsulates so much. What he's not teaching her is the capacity to be alone, to have a moment of solitude by being alone with them, sitting quietly with them while they experience solitude. Every great psychology tradition teaches us that if you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely. He senses that by not modeling, that he can sit quietly himself in a moment of reverie with his child. Plus, he's not having the little conversations with her that would model his interest in her and his connection to her. Why are we doing this?

Howard: You cite a recent Pew Research survey about teens and technology. It seem like many people share having the feeling that they shouldn't do something, but they do it anyway.

Turkle: Yes. What's amazing about that story is what was at stake. 89% of adults say that in their last social interaction, they took out a phone while they were with people. 82% of people said it deteriorated the conversation. We know we're doing something that doesn't feel right to us, but we're doing it anyway.

My book is not anti-technology. My book is pro-conversation. The point is when you use your phone and how you use your phone. The time to use your phone is not in an intimate moment with your child, to deny you and your child that point of connection.

Howard: While we may be occupying our attention now in more interactive ways, people have been focusing on books, magazines, and newspapers instead of talking for many years. I'm thinking here of a picture of a train car full of people reading newspapers that's often used to argue that technology is not causing social isolation. Your book suggested to me that the impact of putting smartphones in our pockets is different, in a negative sense. Over two thirds of American adults have a smartphone now. Half the planet is likely to have one by the end of the decade. What's new here, and why does it matter?

Turkle: It's a difference that so many of us feel, even as we recognize that there's nothing new under the sun. The daily experience of being at a party, being in the middle of a conversation, and someone just pulling out a phone and disappearing. Being at a funeral and someone just pulling out a phone. I went to the theater two nights ago, and the person to my right and left were both on their phones.

It's 100% true that when you went to Grand Central Station and took a train, everybody on the train is reading a newspaper. But, think about the experience of being in a conversation, or thinking you were in a conversation, or gearing up to have the courage to start a conversation, and then someone taking out a phone. Or about the phone on the table that could interrupt you at any moment because the person could go to it, rather than be with you, and that somehow being socially acceptable?

Image: SherryTurkle.com
When I talk about the three promises of the phone: you can always be heard, you can put your attention where you want to be, and you never have to be bored.

These are differences that I think we are sensing make a difference that we need to acknowledge and respect, even as we respect the continuity of our experience of media.

I think that what's different is our vulnerability to these new promises. When my students come to me, they say that despite the fact that they're in a memoir class, where people are talking about their abuse as children, they find themselves looking at their texts on their screen when they have the phones where they can see the screens.

They want to know who wants them. They can't give up wanting to know who wants them. That speaks to a human vulnerability of wanting to know who wants you and being able to have that satisfied by this new device that a newspaper couldn't give you.

While you want to respect the continuity of technology, students saying I need to have this on because I want to know who wants me, that is a new kind of vulnerability that undermines the conversations of class and needs to be addressed seriously, in a different kind of way.

Howard: Is this just about device etiquette?

Turkle: It's not an etiquette question. It's what deep human need this technology promises: it will tell you who wants you. All of your questions, which are pertinent about how it's different or parsing different kinds of screens or applications? You want to respect that now you're dealing with a technology that speaks to that kind of human desire and is reaching out to you. That's what cuts off conversation, or is more interesting than talking to me.

Howard: Could we say that about television, too?

Turkle: Well, television is a little bit different. Television gets you more options, because you can watch a television program with your kid, and you can comment on it together. You can talk about it together. I talk a lot about watching television with my daughter and both of us talking at the television and commenting on the television. Sometimes, if it's pausing something and fighting about it. Television, because when you watch it in a 'pausable' form, offers you so many more options to make it more social, is a little bit different.

My concern is not about screen time. My research is about talk time. Sherry Turkle
The father disappearing into his phone, leaving his child in the bathtub, there's no options. Kids who are 18 can remember back to when their fathers used to read the newspaper on Sunday, while they used to watch football with them. The newspaper was something that they would pass back and forth and share and watch television. That was the time that they would bring up something that was on their mind while they were watching sports and passing the paper.

The nice thing about being an ethnographer and going out and seeing how people really live and talking to them is that you learn not to be an absolutist. People find creative ways to express themselves. I don't want to say never this, never that, but in general, people are using digital devices to look down and away from each other when they're with each other. That's really what I'm trying to get people to reflect on. It isn't that you can never do it, but as a general practice in parenting, if it's breakfast and you're doing your email and your kid is sitting opposite you, you're losing an opportunity.

One of the iconic statements in my book is a 15-year-old who says that she was at summer camp and her dad visited her. He wanted to prove some point about the cinematographer in some Woody Allen film, and he takes out his phone, and she says to him, "Daddy, please stop googling. I just want to talk to you." In other words, he's into the facts, and she just wants to hang with her dad.

Howard: When I've talked to child development experts who have thought about the choices we're making about parenting and technology, we've discussed 'dialogic learning' in the context of whether we should be watching videos on a screen of any size, whether it's a smartphone, tablet, or big TV. We need to be engaging children around what's happening on-screen, not as you said poignantly in your last book, to be "alone together." Instead of thinking about screen time, can we think of screen use? Can we really segment different kinds of activities on the screen? What does the research tell us about different kinds of uses?

Turkle: My concern is not about screen time. My research is about talk time. My concern is not about Sesame Street versus other streets. My concern is children saying to me that "I want to raise my kids not the way my parents are raising me, but the way my parents think they're raising me, which is no phones at dinner and actually having a conversation with me."

It's not that your question isn't important, but what I'm trying to point to — and the reasons are multiple and complex — is that we have found ways around conversation. There are reasons to feel that it's OK, that the social mores have changed, and that it's OK to be with each other and also be on our screens. There's a cost, not so hidden, in that social behavior.

One 18-year-old says to me, "I'll tell you what's wrong with conversation: it takes place in real time and you can't control what you're going to say." All of a sudden, people are talking about being perfect and holding themselves up to a standard of perfection, wanting to edit what they say, and wanting to get it right, not wanting there to be lulls in a conversation.

These values are making us forget what we know about life, which is that real people kind of don't work that way. That's my focus — it isn't really about whether Sesame Street is a better kind of program.

Howard: What I'm trying to speak to here is not necessarily Sesame Street or other programs but different uses of screens. We've studied how television can be positive or negative for child development for years. What's on the TV matters. Now we have little screens that follow us everywhere and can show us almost anything. I've seen research that suggests that being connected to the internet and social media is leading people to meet more face-to-face. It's promoting sociality and leading to offline connections, which, as you highlight, build empathy.

You give poignant examples in the book about how people immersed in digital media are losing cognitive capacity to remember facts, or falling behind in the social skills they need to navigate life. Is that what the available empirical research tells us about the impact of social technologies mediated by screens?

Turkle: Television really was not my focus. Let's look at social media in general. If you have an application, such as Meetup, where the purpose of the application is to meet in person, in my way of thinking that becomes almost paradigmatic of an application that is on a path towards getting people towards face-to-face conversation. Good for it. It's not an application that's trying to keep people in a perfect world, where people are editing what they're saying online, but to get them into the messy mix of talking in person. Certainly, people meet online.

The more I've gotten into writing the book, I've seen people become more emotionally interested in using that kind of app or people organizing sporting events and using apps to invite people to the event. There's a world of using digital devices to get people meeting and talking face-to-face. Somebody pro-conversation like myself is only a supporter of all of those kinds of efforts.

Television is a mixed bag, because you can watch television alone in your room and have it be very isolating, or you can watch television and have it be a very social experience. I'm saying that what I'm trying to point to is to get people to be very intentional about your cell phone use. If your use of your device is bringing you towards conversation, then great. If you're using it to connect with people so you can make a dinner date, so that you can find people like you, so you can feel more connected in your community, great.

It makes sense: if you think you can be interrupted at any time, the nature of the conversation shifts. Sherry Turkle
My focus isn't on the technology. My focus is on whether you're sometimes using your cell phone to cut off conversation and to find ways around conversation, when conversation is really what the situation calls for, in family, in friendships, in work. I just found a lot of examples of that when people were almost unaware of what they were doing. Sometimes, they became aware and they sort of said 'that's not good.' They were supported by the social mores in their group that made it ok.

For instance, college students call it the "rule of three," which is that they go to dinner, if three people are looking up, they were allowed to look down at their phone. In that situation, what is going to happen to the conversation? It becomes focused on trivial things, when people don't mind being interrupted, in the same way if there is a meeting, it shifts to lighter things. We're also careless about each other. There's less of an empathic connection between us. If you redo that experiment and put a phone on the periphery of a landscape, on the edge of our vision, you get the same response. A silent phone disconnects people, even if it's not on the table where we are.

It makes sense: if you think you can be interrupted at any time, the nature of the conversation shifts. That's what fascinates me, that we're allowing these devices to change the nature of our conversations, the nature of our intimacies, the nature of our connection with each other without intention, without our having made that decision or wanting that to happen.

SEE: Q&A: Why our digital devices are making us lonelier than ever

Howard: Your book explores what could be gained from connections, too. What do you say about the work of Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, whose research suggests technology is not driving us apart?

Turkle: There was a recent Pew report that particularly contrasted me with Hampton. They said Sherry Turkle's work is great, because she's talking about how when you're together and you look at your phone, well that's bad. Everyone can see that. Let's grant her that that's not cool, but Hampton shows that a lot of time people look at their phones they're alone. So what's wrong with that?

The reason I create the arc in the book that I call the virtuous circle, is to make the link between solitude and conversation. The fact that we need to have solitude and not have this continual stream of constantly looking at something in order to prepare for ourselves for a life of conversations. Solitude and not having to constantly go to our phone is part of the preparation for sociality.

My argument is that you have this stunning work at the University of Virginia that shows after six minutes alone, students would rather shock themselves than continue without a phone or something to read. People see being alone as something we want technology to solve for us. Along with this flight from being alone comes this flight from solitude.

What I think is intriguing about Hampton's work — and it's not a critique of what he's done — is the fact that we're always looking at our phones is in fact part of the problem. I see his work as data that need to be addressed as part of what creates the flight from conversation.

Howard: Does the data show that more digitally intermediated connection is leading to improvements in how we collaborate, work, or govern — something you wrote about, focusing on privacy and democracy?

Turkle: If you want more civic participation, that's a good thing. Are you using the phones in ways that encourage it? Or are people so freaked out by privacy that they pull away? If part of the ways in which the phones are made make people scared to say anything online, that's not good. I think of the girl who says that I'm glad I have nothing controversial to say, because I have no privacy and I could not do it online.

Howard: The same kinds of techniques that have been honed in the gambling world could be applied to social networking and gaming — something you may not see technologists talk about much publicly. What cues, nudges, or notifications are they using to encourage people to consume more or share more or even log back in, if they've deactivated, cut back their use, or if the devices detect that we are bored?

Turkle: These technologies you're talking about, they're going to be used in education in all kinds of ways. The same sorts of things that Natasha Schull talks about in Addiction by Design — throw in a little steak to get people to stay at their slot machine. Throw in a little "steak" conversation to get people to stay at their screen at the MOOC. It won't be real. This is kind of a brave new world, but why are we doing this?

I think we're at a good time to talk about it. We were like young lovers, where we thought that too much talking would spoil the romance. We're exactly at the point now where we've had the romance, we're a little more sophisticated. With the kinds of issues you're raising about, it's only the head of the company that gets to unplug. They're using every kind of of manipulation to get us to stay on our phones. What the hell is that?

It's time to talk. That's my message: you want your kid in the baby bouncer watching a screen, let's talk about it. What are the other choices? You want him or her in a potty seat with a screen? You want to do your email while your kid is in the bath? What's being lost?

I'm not saying this is an easy climb. When I see something like toddler bouncers with a place for an iPad, I'm thinking, OK, that toddler isn't going to be spoken to. Nobody is going to be making eye contact with that toddler. This is exactly the wrong direction.

One of my colleagues, Cynthia Breazeal, just got a huge grant from the government for a robot that will read to children. There's a parent that will not read to the child. The question is: what's accomplished when a person reads to child? So, here's a half a million dollars to get a robot to read to a child. OK, well let's think about that. What was accomplished when a parent read to a child? Or a caretaker? Or a high school student for the day? All the things that happen when a human being reads to a child? Why are we so hot to have a robot do it? That's the conversation I'm trying to start.

I think we're seeing reading to a child in a kind of instrumental, narrow way: how many words can we get this child to hear, as opposed to this is the beginning of a child learning about human conversation. That's the direction we're going. More happens in human conversation than sharing a lot of words.

Howard: Over the last two decades, many of my peers have used beepers, pagers, and smartphones for work, particularly in the finance, medical, legal, and government domains. As a result, they've become tethered to work that follows them everywhere. It's only recently that some have achieved senior enough positions where they are able to push back and not be at someone's beck and call. I was thinking about some of your recommendations, and it struck me that so many of the discussions about technology are really about power.

Does someone have the power to say to someone, even implicitly, that 'I'm not going to get back to you right away?' Can someone choose not to take their BlackBerry to the beach or woods for a weekend getaway, as a junior associate? Can she not respond immediately to someone asking for information? Or an inquiry about a product as a sales person at a startup? Or the bill a staffer is working on, here on Capitol Hill? Can a journalist afford not to get back to someone during dinnertime? Unless you have power in the hierarchy of the corporate, financial, health care, legal, or broader business worlds, mobile technology pulls you back in.

Turkle: I think the trick is that the people who are leading these organizations make rules that take into consideration that conversations are good for the bottom line, productivity, and creativity. We're not doing our organizations a favor by getting into this thing where everybody is on 24/7.

My book is not anti-technology. My book is pro-conversation. Sherry Turkle
You have lots of experimentation now, where what was good for the boss, people are now saying 'hey, maybe this is good for the people who work for me.' I see that more as the wave of the future. That's the conversation I want to be part of, where you don't have to wait to be the boss to be able to live that way. Where the boss says that the culture of this firm is going to be one where people are not tethered to their phones all the time. At Bank of America, where they did this predictable time off, it's understood that people aren't expected to answer email until the next workday.

I think you're absolutely right that the privilege of living sanely with our phones has been reserved for the privileged. There's been a reason for that: the privileged know that they get more work done when they live that way. Now it's time for the privileged to realize that extending that benefit will benefit everyone.

Howard: This issue of privilege is relevant regarding another part of the book. Your recommendations struck me as only behaviors that people can adopt if they have agency — which is to say, power — over their personal and professional lives.

Turkle: My bad for not making it clear that this is supposed to be something you do if you're the head of an organization. That's the limitation in my writing. In my case study, when I talk about this firm where the cafeteria line is the right size because they've studied how people should be standing in line in order to talk to each other, or the kitchen is the right size, they're clearly trying to get people to talk to each other. They've read Weber's work on how productivity is good for the bottom line, and how conversation increases productivity.

If at a firm, nobody can talk to anybody because they're on the messaging system all the time, they're not showing devotion to the firm? At that firm, it's up to the culture makers. I do try to make it clear in my writings on business that it's up to the leadership at the firm to create a culture of conversation in their business. A micro kitchen just becomes an amenity if you don't create a culture of conversation where people can be more productive because they're allowed to be involved.

All these things you've done — mindfulness moments, pauses, and retreats — it's all just an amenity if you don't allow people to really talk to each other. One person says I'm not being paid to have a conversation. People will not talk to each other if they have the expectation that they have to be online.

Howard: Ultimately, do you see our society moving towards being more digitally connected in a positive or negative way?

Turkle: It's a complicated mix. What I want is intentionality in our use of technology, so we can nudge it. Every technology makes us confront our human values. That's a good thing, because we get to ask what they are.

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About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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