My Conversation with Sherry Turkle

While Sherry Turkle, an MIT researcher and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, was on stage presenting at #BIF8, I sat huddled behind the screen of my laptop.  That seems fitting given that she was talking about how technology is undermining our ability as human beings to connect and engage with each other.  Here plea to those of us in the audience – and across our society – was to “look up, look at each other… and start a conversation.”

During a break, I took the bait and went to have a one-on-one conversation with Sherry Turkle. 

First, I asked her to contrast the energy and enthusiasm that exists around the idea of movement building, and specifically the use of technology to support collaboration on a global scale, and her argument that technology has undermined our ability to connect and form intimate connections that is necessary to build community. Her response:

“I think we have to separate the hype from the reality. I don’t take away what technology allows us to do in terms of getting people together and organizing them.  But in order to really get the job done we need to not be afraid to face each other, face-to-face, and really have that conversation. I think that we are going to be sorely disappointed if we rely on massive organizing potential and end up somehow phobic about face-to-face. I don’t want to take away from this wonderful potential of what technology can do in terms of mass organizing, but I think we will be somehow disappointed if we trade away our love affair with each other.”

As our conversation continued, I suggested that one of the appealing aspects of technology is that it made it possible for large numbers of people to take a shared set of actions – watch a video, read an article, like an organization or share a view, etc.  Arguably, we have been able to train people to behave in certain prescribed ways, believing, at some level, that when people take those simple actions, we are driving meaningful, measurable changes in how people think or act.  By comparison, we all know that a face-to-face conversation is more fulfilling, and potentially more impactful – but also far more difficult to make happen, and nearly impossible to do at any kind of scale.  So I asked whether/how we could teach people to talk to each other at scale.  She responded:

“I think what’s funny about that question is that we don’t need to teach – we need to remember.  We have gotten out of the habit because we don’t have dinner with our families. We don’t have breakfast with our families.  We don’t take walks with our kids.  I’m not trying to portray a golden age when we just hung around, but we are losing the moments when people did talk.  We first need to go back to the social situations that we value, when people did those things that were conducive to talking (her example is walking with another person on the beach, an activity she has observed over the past two decades being replaced by people walking by themselves while constantly thumb-texting).  To ask, how are we going to teach people to talk to each other on the beach – let’s just put away our phones and see what happens when we spontaneously discovery the please of talking to each other on the beach.

I started to imagine all these conversations taking place – and then going very badly.  What happens if/when we put down our devices and engage in a face-to-face conversation – only to leave the conversation feeling unfulfilled?  If hiding behind technology is, to some extent, a reliable defense against being hurt, what are we supposed to do when that (inevitably) happens?  She responded:

“I’ll take that chance, because I think our image of what that conversation will look like has been flattened out by the experience of texting.  Our idea of conversation is so flattened out that people are willing to call almost anything a conversation – but what are they talking about?  I think we should put down the devices and see what happens.”

Our conversation continued for a few more minutes, and others joined in to offer thoughts and ask questions as well – but by then, Sherry Turkle had asked me to turn off my recording device, so I don’t remember most of what was discussed in enough detail to relay it here.  That makes sense, I guess.