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Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age [Book Review]

Reclaiming Conversation

In this book, Sherry Turkle suggests that it’s time to put technology in its place and “reclaim conversation” because we are missing out on necessary conversations when we divide our attention between the people we are with and the world on our phones. However, the author stressed that her stance is not anti-technology.

Right off the bat in “The Empathy Diaries”, Turkle makes a strong case for conversation:

“It is not enough to ask your children to put away their phones. You have to model this behaviour and put away your phone. If children don't learn how to listen, to stand up for themselves and negotiate with others in classrooms or at family dinner, when will they learn the give-and-take that is necessary for good relationships or, for that matter, for the debate of citizens in a democracy?”

That first chapter alone is well worth reading, especially if you’re daunted by the size of the book or if you don’t have the attention span for this sort of things.

The case for conversation
According to the author, face-to-face conversation teaches patience. In comparison, when we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. Our need for immediate response (a.k.a. instant gratification) drives us to ask simpler questions, even on the most important matters, and we become accustomed to a life of constant interruptions. Gradually, we shy away from conversations that require us to wait and listen, and let our minds go over things. As a result, conversations without agenda, where you discover things as you go along, become harder for us.

You may have noticed that many teenagers these days prefer to text rather than talk. That's because an open-ended conversation takes place in real time and these teenagers feel that they can't control what they're going to say and how the conversation will evolve. Hence, they use texting to avoid having to deal with the nuances, tones and body language associated with such conversations.

Furthermore, if you swear by social media as a platform for meaningful conversations, you will run into a thorny issue. Eventually, you will learn to share mostly the positive stuff (or at least what will please your audience) because you can feel disappointed if something you post doesn't get the number of positive reactions you want. In fact, studies have shown that people don't like posting things that their followers won't agree with.

The problem is, if you spend significant time online just responding to positive things, you won't get practice with the more complex processing required for negative emotions.

Make a conscious choice
Turkle, however, doesn't recommend going cold turkey on technology. For many people, giving up the phone is a harder habit to kick than, say, smoking.

“But if you understand its profound effect on you, you can approach your phone with greater intention and choose to live differently with it.”

Here, the author tells a story of Reyna, a 14-year-old girl who prints out her reading assignment and puts aside her school-issued iPad “because studying was made a lot more difficult because of all the other distractions on the iPad, all the other apps they could download.”

Students who print out their assignments in order to have time away from screen should give educators pause when they, with the best of intentions, try to make things more efficient by closing the library and declaring books obsolete.

There are a few things parents need to do, according to Turkle.

First, parents need to have a fuller understanding of what is at stake in conversations with children – qualities like the development of trust and self-esteem, and the capacity for empathy, friendship, and intimacy.

Second, parents need to move beyond thinking of their own attachment to their phones with simple metaphors of addiction. Once we recognise the affordance of technology, we are in a position to look at our vulnerability with a clearer eye. If we feel “addicted to our phones”, it is not a personal weakness. We are exhibiting a predictable response to a perfectly executed design. Apps on our phones are designed to profit from our attention, not from how well the technology supports us in the lives we want to lead.

You can begin this journey by admitting vulnerability and then design new behaviours around it. One way I’ll recommend, if you’re on an Android phone, is to use the Ratio app (ironically) to reduce distractions and track your app usage. (A widget is available for iOS 14 and above, and you can download it for a one-off fee.)

Endless confessions
You may, however, find the endless accounts of teenagers and adults confessing their failure to resist the allure of online “connections” a tad repetitive. Depending on where you're coming from, these accounts can either be depressing to read after a while, or a boring distraction. The parts about privacy and political discourse are heavy reading and require philosophical reflection to digest the essence.

Reading this book, you can't help but worry that our future generations will no longer be able to hold meaningful conversations face-to-face.

If you’re still not convinced, watch these two interviews with the author – one conducted virtually and the other physically – and try to notice the subtle difference in the dynamics of the conversation.

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About the author
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

An expert on mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics, she writes on the “subjective side” of people's relationships with technology, especially computers.

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