Tech & Work

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

Technology critic, psychologist, and author Sherry Turkle explains why she's worried about how our digital connections are impacting face-to-face conversations.

Sherry Turkle
Image courtesy of Sherry Turkle

When Sherry Turkle first arrived at MIT in 1976, she was fascinated by the power of computers—how people used them to project images of self onto the technology, how computers served as a "gateway" to others, and how they allowed us to play with identity.

In the mid '90s, something changed. Psychologist, founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, released today, Turkle began worrying about the impact of technology on our relationships. She saw face-to-face conversation at home, work, and in the office replaced by texting and emails; she saw real-life hangouts interrupted by cell phones and laptops; she saw employees afraid to talk to clients and students shying away from office hours.

From within the nexus of technological innovation, with over three decades experience studying human interaction with machines, Turkle is one of today's greatest technology critics, bringing a unique perspective to the dialogue on the real effects of the digital world on our human relationships. In his New York Times review of her book, Jonathan Franzen aptly calls Turkle "a kind of conscience for the tech world."

Drawing from interviews, observations, and case studies that illustrate the consequences of our online lives, Reclaiming Conversation illustrates the sometimes-harmful effects of our over-reliance on digital connections, making a compelling and passionate argument for face-to-face interaction.

I spoke with Turkle about the how her views have changed over time, how she sees new technology affecting relationships, and what she thinks we should do about it. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How have your views on technology changed over time? What caused you to begin investigating the downsides of new technology?

My early work sent a message to psychologists: "Don't be so critical of this technology. It's fascinating; be interested!" When psychologists countered that technology, tapping into people's fantasies, was unrelated to their work, I fought back: 'It's only fantasy? You're psychologists. This is the new place where we're enacting our dreams!' These weren't love letters to technology. But I emphasized that there's something really fascinating, positive, interesting, provocative happening.

But around 1995, I met two technologies that deeply upset me. I met sociable robotics and social media. Social robots are robots that pretend they care about us. We're clearly starting to go in that direction, ending up with a Barbie that says to a kid, 'Hi. I'm your new best friend. Let's talk about best friends!' Or sociable robots for the elderly that says, 'Hi. I'm your companion. I love you. Let me take care of you!'

And with social media, people began moving their social lives online in a way that was different from the email and the bulletin boards I had grown up with. This was a different kind of play; a way to create an online life and online friendships. It started competing with what you could do in the "physical real."

What exactly upset you about the sociable robots?

The sociable robotics deeply disturbed me in the sense that it is a 'pretend' technology. Pretending to have empathy, pretending to be caring. I really see damage. I see danger. I see a potentially toxic environment for kids. I see for the elderly—my God!—here you have people who want to tell the story of their lives to something that never had a life. On both ends of the spectrum I just cannot find something good to say.

What about social media?

Obviously on the social media it's a more complicated situation. After Alone Together came out, so many people told me they would rather text than talk. I wondered, "Well, okay. What happens if they mean it?" A 2015 Pew Study showed that 89% percent of people said that in their most recent social encounter they had their phone out and 82% of people said they think it wasn't good for their social interaction.

So that's where we are. But we're going full-steam ahead. That's what preoccupies me now. I'm so glad the Pew study came out. It counted what I have qualitative evidence for: What does it mean to be doing something on a daily basis that you kind of think is not good for you? That parents say isn't good for their relationship with the kids? That kids are complaining about their parents? That lovers are complaining about their lovees?"

Do you ever see yourself vulnerable to this technology? What causes you to turn away from in-person conversations?

A lot of the things I say about other people and phones is true of me and laptops. You can barely find me without my laptop. I turn away from people to go onto my laptop. 'Phones' is a kind of shorthand term, because for most people it's their phone. I think that actually my case shows that it can be a laptop. If it takes you away from conversation with other people, that's the problem. I don't think it makes sense to talk about the device. What matters is talking about the psychological dynamic of the thing that's a problem.

You pointed to a study that shows how one person's use of a device can affect others around them.

If a student opens a laptop, it's not just them who is distracted and whose productivity and competency and ability to focus goes way down—it's all the students who are sitting around them. This didn't quite make psychological sense to me until I had an experience that snapped it into focus. I went to the theater and to my right and to my left there were two people texting. They were texting, I wasn't. It was a great play, but I could barely focus. I was a complete mess. What professor can compete with this? We're easily distracted. I see a big change in professors' attitudes towards all of this. When I started ten years ago, professors were like, "I don't want to be a nanny. I'm not going to tell them what to do." Now it's like, "Put those laptops away. Listen to me. Have a conversation in class."

One irony is that, while we're doing all of this multitasking, our productivity suffers, yet we actually think we're getting more accomplished.

I think one of the first jobs for any educator is to push uni-tasking as the highest priority. Sherry Turkle

All the studies on multitasking show that we literally do worse and worse every time we add a new task—it's not even a close call. But we feel we're doing more because our brains are wired to send serotonin in as we add new tasks. Our brains are wired to reward the behavior that actually reduces our ability to perform at our highest level. So it is actually a very sad and dramatic story, the multitasking. I think one of the first jobs for any educator is to push uni-tasking as the highest priority.

What effect does our use of these devices have on productivity at school or in the workplace?

In the workplace the most dramatic thing I have found is how people shy away from others. They don't say, "I don't want to talk." They find ways around conversation. They feel overwhelmed and think they can control their time if they stay in front of their screen. But also, people are lacking some of the basic skills for talking. Employers are giving crash courses to young employees.

And young employees are pretending that they've had conversations when really all they've done is send emails. They'd say "Well, I talked to these people and they said ..." And later, when something is clearly went south in a major way, the employer realized that for her, "talking" meant sending emails. So you have to ask questions like "did you talk with your voice?" In some cases, people were being interviewed for a job in public relations and were completely unable to speak.

What if we look at a company, say a tech company, where people are relying on computers and doing a lot of work behind screens? Is it still harmful to have this digital reliance over face-to-face?

Yes, because basically people are so busy staying online. I study one company that offers great spaces for conversation. There's the cafeteria, with tables that are exactly the right size for conversation, and the micro-kitchen—and it's so fantastic because it's exactly the kind of place where you'd want to drop in and chat. But nobody wants to do that because there's such pressure to be on your email all the time. People are walking around completely terrified that they're off their email and that they're not responding and not responsive. What's the good of it all, then? If you want to foster a culture of conversation, the key word is culture. It's not about just offering these amenities—they're not what's going to make conversation happen.

What about for people who are introverted, afraid to speak up in class? Do you see the digital world helping them at all—by building communities or offering them a voice?

This is a very controversial question—because how can I say not? The question is set up that if you say "no, it doesn't," you're like a fool. If you're introverted, then online you get to have a voice. You take somebody like that and you say "Oh. Yeah. I can really see that."

So can you talk about the benefits and drawbacks?

Let's say I have a student like that. Let's make this really personal. What's my job? It's to teach her how to talk. It's to teach her how to talk, to participate in politics, to participate in society. There are kinds of participation where you just need to speak up. I cannot be convinced that the way to handle a student like that is to say "Oh, yes. You're special. Don't talk. Just send me email."

I could have written a book just on this. I cannot get my students to come to office hours. They're paying, like what, $60,000 a year? So I'm one quarter of their $60,000. I mean, please. They will not come to office hours. I'm not alone. All of my other colleagues are seeing this. This is a thing.

When did you start seeing that happening?

It definitely has to do with email. Students say that they can just email their perfect question and they're going to get my perfect answer. But what kind of a model is that of what is going to happen in a conversation? They're going to ask me their perfect question and I'm going give them their perfect answer? It's utterly transactional. I think back to how I ended up becoming a professor, how I ended up getting the courage to go to graduate school, because when I went to graduate school there really weren't a lot of women in academics. I didn't have a whole lot of confidence. I didn't go because somebody sent me a letter; I went because people talked to me. So the idea that what these students are going to get from me is a perfect email, that this transaction is going to make it happen for them, it's just sad.

Moving forward

So is there any hope? Although we are all vulnerable to the strong pull of our digital devices, Turkle stresses that these tools were not necessarily intended to be used the way they currently are. Steve Jobs, she points out, "did not encourage his children's use of iPads or iPhones."

Reclaiming Conversation is a call to action for a generation of adults to mentor our youth, helping them re-learn, or in some cases, learn for the first time, the important art of conversation.

Turkle offers several suggestions for how we can reconnect. Carving out tech-free zones at home, for example, or tech-free times of day, is a great start for families wanting to reconnect. At the office, it's important for managers to set the right example by staying off of their phones during meetings or in one-on-one conversations. Even offering a physical cell phone drop-off point before a meeting begins can greatly improve the quality of the dialogue, spurring a new, creative, open-ended conversation—what conversation, in its true form, is meant to be.

"Face-to-face conversation," Turkle wrote, "leads to higher productivity and is associated with reduced stress."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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