Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A fascinating and deeply researched look at what communication via digital technology is doing to human relations. A must read.

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist, researcher and author, has been studying the impact of digital technology on humans for three decades, publishing many books on the subject. Her latest, Reclaiming Conversation, argues that our obsession with technology has caused us to neglect our conversational skills. The good news is these conversational skills can, with effort and determination, be exercised again like a muscle and strengthened. Better still, good conversation, as opposed to the weakened and shallow exchanges we have via technology, has the power to heal, to bring greater understanding of the self and others, to even enhance our capacity for empathy.

This is the light at the end of the tunnel, the payoff if we turn more to each other instead of our phones. Reclaiming Conversation sounds like a self-help book, a sunny guide to improved human relations. It’s not. What Turkle examines in careful detail for 360 pages is how digital  technology has had an adverse effect on our relationships. The most startling takeout from the book is a dramatic drop in the amount of empathy people exhibit (especially the young). Teachers report of their students treating each other in rather uncaring ways, basically because they don’t talk face-to-face. They have no idea how their words impact on others. This leads to the second big behavioural change that the book reports: people find relationships too difficult, even scary, so they prefer to use technology - texts, Facebook, social media - as a way of communicating. Technology is embraced as it allows users to create the perfect distance from one another - not too far away but not too close, either. Couples and families even make pacts to argue via technology; apparently this helps them keep their emotions in check.  

The net effect of all this texting and Twittering is that relationships are suffering. Friends and family when they are together prefer to look at their phones. Children complain that their parents bring phones and tablets to the dinner table and ignore them. When people are communicating by text, the language is constrained by the brevity of the messages. This is why emoticons are necessary, to try and convey more nuanced emotions. Text messages are delicate things, often open to misinterpretation by overly sensitive recipients. Don’t send a message with a blunt full stop, as it could be interpreted as anger. Add lots of cheerful exclamation marks instead.

Reclaiming Conversation can really be considered a sequel to Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together, which examined human attitudes to robots and phone technology. This time around  Turkle looks deeper at communication via technology and what it is doing to us. The book is rich with utterly fascinating field research. The author’s training as a psychologist - Turkle is clearly a careful questioner and listener - comes through everywhere in the text. It’s like social media itself has been put on the analytical couch and given a diagnosis. That diagnosis is not good. Conversation via technology is creating a whole host of new anxieties, even though it is supposed to be smoothing out the rough spots of human interaction.

It’s hard to be optimistic that conversation will make a comeback and people will turn their phones off more regularly. Interestingly, Turkle says that parents need to set the right example and act as mentors to their children. At the moment they are not. The research in Reclaiming Conversation shows them to be even more obsessed with their phones than their children.

Reclaiming Conversation is Indispensable reading for anyone wanting to understand what’s happening to the collective psyche as everyone plugs into the Internet 24/7.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143109792  RRP: $26.99

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