Sherry Turkle, author and MIT professor, believes our cell phones, devices designed to help us communicate, are in some ways doing just the opposite. They are impairing our ability to connect on an emotional level.
A sociologist, licensed clinical psychologist, and professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Turkle spent much of her career examining how people interact with technology and how that technology changes the people who use it. In her latest book, published in October, called Reclaiming Conversation, she writes about how the ubiquity of cell phones harms our ability to connect in meaningful ways.
In the book, Turkle uses a quote in Henry David Thoreau ‘s Walden, to structure her argument. Thoreau wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.” Turkle argues that just as Thoreau needed these symbolic chairs in his cabin near Walden Pond, we need a similar social structure to communicate effectively. But cell phones are damaging our capacity for engaged conversation, she suggests, and thus our capacity for friendship and social connection.
Turkle argues that we avoid solitude, Thoreau’s first chair, by constantly checking our cell phones, despite the fact that hat we need this solitude to truly know ourselves. With cell phones, “we turn to other people to support our sense of self,” robbing us of the self-knowledge necessary for rich conversations.
Chair two, for friendship, is threatened by our cell phones because “when our phones are around, we are vulnerable to ignoring the people we love.” Turkle writes about how groups of teens will constantly check their phones even when they are together. This, Turkle claims, results in ever more superficial conversations.
Turkle then looks to chair three, society, by examining how cell phones have changed the workplace and classroom. She writes about students checking for and sending text messages during class and offices where we text or e-mail instead of talking to our co-workers. She said in these situations we’re not as likely converse or to play with ideas.
But Turkle also explores what she calls a fourth chair, our desire to converse with the machines themselves. She writes about peoples’ interactions with Apple’s iPhone assistant Siri, and with MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory ‘s emotive robot Kismet, then marvels that “Even as we treat machines as if they were almost human, we develop habits that have us treating human beings as almost-machines.”
She claims that in the end, we are sacrificing conversation for connection. But this isn’t necessary. We can take steps to be less reliant on our phones. Turkle is careful to state that her argument is “not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation.”
Sherry Turkle will speak to the Knight fellows on December 3. Space is limited. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to attend.