Monday, April 23, 2012

Sherry Turkle: Digital "sips" substitute for real conversation

By Sherry Turkle, New York Times, April 21, 2012
Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.”

At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.
We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.
Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another.
A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them. He says they’re “too busy on their e-mail.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.”
A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.
In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.
My wife and I recently visited a place of business, to examine a variety of offerings, in the transportation industry. We met a salesman with whom I had communicated via e-mail about five or six times, and he was aware of our visit, timed when he would be available.
For a full hour, he listened to every question, sought answers when he did not have them, made suggestions and recommendations as he saw fit, and interracted with both my wife and me in a respectful, listening and conversing manner, almost in a throw-back to another time.
He too came from a small town, and knew that his part of the conversation, (not underscored by a commission relationship with his employer; everyone in the business is paid a salary) was important to our learning, and our own sense of well-being.
Whether we actually make a purchase from him, or from anyone in that sector of the economy, our decision will not be made because he was unavailable for us, following a considerable drive during rush-hour on a Spring Friday evening. In fact, his capacity and willingness to conduct a "full conversation," albeit about the potential of selling one of the products in his business, were topics of conversation following our experience with him.
While my wife and I do use our cell phones to text, when she is busy in her officer, and potentially unable to respond immediately, we refuse to reduce our conversations to that digital instrument, and enjoy "over the kitchen table" conversations if and when they seem appropriate.
We also both enjoy SKYPING with our respective grandchildren, given that their families are hundreds of miles distant, and we do not see them more than once each year.
However, inside the relationship, we "talk" a lot, relative to what we see on the streets (in a university town where students are walking while texting or while conversing on their cell phones) and sometimes for a fair length of time.
It is a treasure of our relationship that I appreciate, and am conscious not to abuse the privilege, especially when Michelle is tired, or merely wanting time-out from a heavy day at work.
It is her capacity to "connect" to her clients for which she is continually receiving compliments and thanks...even taking an extra few minutes to listen and engage in their questions, as she conducts her 'business'.
So, while the conversation is becoming obsolete, at least there are two of us who appreciate its capacity to get-to-know-and-be-known, an essential component to the success of this relationship.

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