Since the release of her first book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Dr. Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been described as the conscience of the digital/tech world. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, to be released next week, is already receiving a great deal of attention in large part due to an opinion essay written by Dr.Turkle and published by The New York Times this past week. The essay based on her new book is entitled “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” and it provides one particular insight that I would like to reflect upon in today’s column. We are all aware that the presence of cell phones can interfere with face to face conversations. Most us have either been the person or have been talking with the person who picks up his or her cell phone in response to a text or email alert, right in the middle of a conversation. We have all been in meetings, restaurants, or family gatherings where some people are paying more attention to what is happening on their phone screen than what is happening in the room. Our cell phones and tablets give us the illusion that we can be two places at once, however the truth is that we end up not fully present in either place. Dr.Turkle highly recommends that cell phones and tablets be silenced and out of sight whenever we are engaging in face-to-face conversations, as they interfere with the relationship between the people involved. That did not surprise me.
What did surprise me though in the essay and what was a new insight for me is the idea that even the way we use technology when we are alone can have a negative impact on relationships. Being overly connected to our technology when we are alone can indirectly impair our ability to engage in meaningful fact to face conversations. Her argument is this: A person who is bored when alone often turns to one of his or her “screens”— phone, tablet, computer, or television to interrupt the boredom. Over time this conditions the brain to desire constant stimulation. When this same person later finds him or herself in a face to face conversation, that person will, out of habit, turn to technology if they become bored, even when in the middle of a conversation. When a conversation is perceived as not stimulating enough on its own, the temptation is then to pick up one’s phone, even in the midst of the conversation. Interacting with technology can impact relationships in the moment and in the habits we develop over time.
Dr. Turkle’s point is that we are losing our capacity to be comfortable with solitude and quiet. We are losing our capacity to be present to our own inner life. We are also losing our ability to be present to the inner life of other people, even those with whom we are sitting face to face.
I know her insight to be true, as I see it in myself at times. When I am disciplined about taking fifteen to twenty minutes each day to meditate and quietly self-reflect, I find that I am more present to others throughout the day. When I don’t do this, when instead I am consistently wired and connected to my digital devices, it is just the opposite, and I am much less present to others, or to myself for that matter.
Dr. Turkle’s essay got my attention and as a result I have made a renewed commitment to reflect on my relationship with technology. Not only will I focus on my use of technology when I am interacting with others, but also when I am alone. I am grateful for her reminder for all of us, that spending more time alone, being more present to our own deeper thoughts and feelings is what also allows us to be more present to each other’s deeper thoughts and feelings as well.