Reclaiming Conversation, book review: Time to talk

Face-to-face conversation is a casualty of the digital age and results in a worrying lack of empathy, says MIT professor Sherry Turkle.

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Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age • By Sherry Turkle • Penguin Press • 448 pages • ISBN: 978-1-59420-555-2 • £16.49 / $27.95

Image: Penguin Press

In 2002, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his three-year-old daughter's imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, who was always too busy to play with her. In his discussion of this reflection of her Manhattan parents' lives, Gopnik mused on the origins of busyness. In part, he blamed technology -- first the telegram, latterly email and texting -- for creating "a whole new class of communications that are defined as incomplete in advance of delivery". We text to say we'll email, email to say we'll phone, phone to schedule a meeting -- and eventually text to cancel and say we'll email to reschedule. No wonder Charlie Ravioli eventually had to hire an assistant to tell Gopnik's daughter his diary was full.

Gopnik's daughter would be 16 now, and a member of the first generation to have grown up with constant digital companions. Her generation is of great concern to Sherry Turkle, who is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. This generation's kids, Turkle finds, avoid voice calls as too emotional, preferring text, email and other media where you can edit what you've said to make sure you haven't got something wrong. Getting it right is a big preoccupation for the kids she interviews -- not least because it's been dinned into them by parents, teachers, and media that the price of getting it wrong is being rejected by the university of your choice followed by a life of crappy jobs and penury.

But they also, as Turkle writes after being called in by a concerned school to investigate, tend to lack empathy precisely because of their lack of synchronous, face-to-face conversation. When you text/email/message, you see your words but do not have to deal with the messy, human reaction.

What we've lost

Much of the book is a discussion of what we've lost as dinnertime has become a calculated effort to decide when it's OK to check our phones. To Turkle's teens, raised on text bites, full gulps of conversation are scary, messy affairs because they are open-ended and anything can happen. The book concludes with a discussion of privacy and how views have changed since the Snowden revelations, and a discussion of the impact of emerging technologies such as robots and smart toys.

Turkle, who has been covering the impact of digital communications on human development for decades, takes too long a view to focus her analysis solely on kids: grown-ups are where these kids are learning this behaviour. Turkle's study finds frustrated kids who can't get their parents' full attention, even over scheduled personal dinners. Those same parents multitask (ineffectively) in meetings, distracting both themselves and everyone around them. Senator John McCain was even caught playing poker on his iPhone during the Senate debate on the crisis in Syria.

Turkle's proposed solution -- to reclaim conversation, to relearn how to be alone with our own thoughts without distractions, to let go of the constant need to check in -- accordingly applies to adults as well as kids. She concludes that we still have time to correct our course. Just about.

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