Relearning How to Talk in the Age of Smartphone Addiction

Sherry Turkle studies how we relate to our devices, and thinks it’s high time we start talking to each other again.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | October 2015 | 17 minutes (4,263 words)


Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has studied our relationship with technology for decades. While some of her earlier works highlighted the ways in which technology could help us construct self-identities, her more recent writing warns that we are overinvesting in our devices and underinvesting in ourselves and each other.

In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published in 2011, Turkle explored the implications of replacing real intimacy with digital connection. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, continues that thread. Turkle uses Thoreau’s three chairs—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society—as a framework, describing how our devices disrupt conversation and healthy development at every stage. When we turn to our phones constantly, we deny ourselves the capacity for solitude and identity development. This, in turn, blunts our ability to form healthy relationships. And vice versa: when we text instead of talk, or look at our devices instead of each other, we diminish our abilities to relate to other people as well as ourselves. Turkle ends the book with a discussion of what it means that we have begun to relate to machines as sentient beings when, in fact, they have no feelings, no experiences, no empathy, no idea what it means to be human.

Turkle—a psychoanalytically trained psychologist who founded and directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self—is no Luddite. But she argues for moderation, and for a deep look at how over-invested we’ve become in new technology. She is also optimistic that we are at just the right moment for this rceexamination, and for a return to conversation, reflection, and real intimacy. Turkle and I began our phone conversation by hailing that old thing, the landline.

Hi, this is Jessica Gross, calling from Longreads. Is this Sherry Turkle?

Yes, it is. I’ve been looking forward to hearing from you. But let me have you call back on a landline. I think the fidelity would be better and it’d just be easier. [Ring, ring.] Here I am. I love this old technology. I’m at a seaside cabin with this 1950 phone that works perfectly. [Laughter]

I got my own landline recently and it’s been really delightful.

I mean, there’s this thing where calls never get dropped, where you can hear in perfect fidelity! [Laughter] And it goes on even if the Wi-Fi is down!

It’s magical.

I remember when my daughter was around 3 or 4 or 5, she discovered in my attic an old IBM Selectric. At the time, I was using a word processing program, and doing envelopes on this word processing program was a torment of the damned. You know, you had to insert the envelope in the printer this way, and then to do the back of the envelope—every envelope seemed like a kind of like a Sisyphean feat. So I’d kept this IBM Selectric typewriter for when I needed to do business correspondence and I wanted a nice, typed envelope.

My daughter discovered this typewriter, and she said to me, “Mommy, Mommy, there’s a computer up there that does writing and printing together!” [Laughter] And I looked at her and I said, “You know, so true. So true.”

That’s amazing.

It was very cute. So tell me what you’d like to focus on. Every day the news brings a different report that puts different aspects of my book front of mind. So I will respond to whatever is on your mind.

Thank you. Well, that’s very psychoanalytic of you. Your writing about technology’s effect on our construction of self is probably where most of my questions will fall, but I hope we’ll have a free-ranging conversation that will go unexpected places.

One thing I’d like to say that is very much on my mind is about the first responses to my book. There seem to be two over-arching misunderstandings about technology and the construction of self. One way that technology interferes with us is that we use it when we are together, and so it interferes with our communication with each other, which is the “alone together” argument I’ve made for years. And then technology also interferes because we use it when we’re alone. What people seem to be arguing in the early response to this book is that, in this case, it shouldn’t be counted as interfering with our sociality, because we’re just using it to fill in this kind interstitial time. You know, “Give it a break, because that time was down time. It wasn’t social time.” They’re saying, “Well, Turkle doesn’t understand that if you’re using technology when you’re alone, it’s not interfering with sociality, it’s not interfering with conversation.” But fundamentally, this book is making the argument that it is. That solitude and conversation, time alone and time together, are fundamentally linked.

Time alone is when we create a self that will be prepared to be fully social. That is, a self that will be able to know itself as individual enough to be able to be with other people as an other. So saying that if people use technology when they’re alone, it’s not taking away from social time, is not just missing my point, it’s missing the point about how in fact a self is constituted. It’s not like this is my invention. [Laughter]

And the second misunderstanding came in another review of the book, which said I don’t talk enough about apps that help us focus our attention. I’m thinking, I want children to be able to focus their attention because they are adults talking to them, not because there are apps buzzing to remind them to get off their phones! I don’t talk about apps that will help us focus our attention because I want us thinking about conversation as a way to focus our attention on each other.

You’re also arguing against a view of ourselves as productivity machines. You’re saying the point is not that we’re unproductive, it’s that we don’t leave time for serendipity—something that such an app would likely disturb.

Yes, or just seeing ourselves as always coupled. I mean, I love my phone, but here, today, was a moment where I knew to put it down and go to a landline. This is my model of how to use a phone: you use it if you’re on a book tour and you’re at a train station some place and it’s the best possible technology. And you know to put it down if you have landline and you can give somebody your full attention and hear them in high fidelity. There’s something about this assumption that we’re always coupled, so any discussion of conversation should consider how the phone can help us with conversation.

And the notion that you’re not hurting yourself if you’re on the phone when you’re alone is even more dangerous, I think—this disrespect for solitude and boredom. You need solitude and you need self-reflection and you need boredom to get back to other people. It’s a big part of my argument.

Can you talk more about the value of solitude, and why you argue that if we don’t learn to be alone, then we’re guaranteed to be lonely?

The capacity to be alone is the capacity to know enough about yourself and who you are, and be comfortable enough with that. That way, when you are with another person, you’re not trying to make that person into somebody you need them to be in order to buttress a fragile sense of your own self. You can actually turn to a person and see them as another person, and have a real relationship with them.

Now, the person who can’t do that is going to be one of these people who nobody wants to be with, because when you see them coming, you know that they’re going to use you to make themselves feel less terrifyingly alone. Those people are very lonely, because they can’t form relationships. They’re using other people as spare parts.

The capacity to be in a relationship requires the capacity for a genuine solitude. One of the gifts of a successful childhood is that you develop this capacity for successful solitude. And you learn it, paradoxically, by a caretaker being with you, but able to leave you a little bit of space.

I remember walks with my grandmother to Macy’s in Brooklyn. And we were just quiet together. Every once in a while there’d be a word, but we were just side by side in our thoughts, and sharing a thought once in a while, and you knew that there was someone there protecting you as you learned to think your own thoughts. People have many different models of what that was: sitting together sewing or reading or playing or giving a child a bath and letting them have the privacy of their thoughts. These are the moments of childhood where children are not abandoned, but they learn to be alone with. And that capacity means that when they come to other relationships, they can form them successfully. If instead of that, you put them in a baby bouncer that has a slot for an iPad or an iPhone or a laptop, they’re always mirrored in some other outside thing and they’re not brought back to their own self and their own resources and their own mind and their own imagination.

There’s a wonderful idea that you have to learn that the most interesting thing in the environment is your own mind. And if you never learn that, it’s not good.

It does seem to me, though, that there are so many ways parents can be disconnected, many of which long preceded the invention of this technology. A parent in the ’50s could easily have had a fragile sense of self and then passed that on to his or her child without devices intervening at all. So while I can see how our technology exacerbates this, I wonder: If it just disappeared, would the parents who are so reliant on it that they are absent from their children’s lives just have been absent anyway, in some other way?

I think that’s a great point, and I basically agree. But I think this technology is an enabler of bad behavior that gives it a sort of social permission. It takes bad behavior and makes it not only normative, but forward thinking. [Laughter] It makes it look space age or progressive or futuristic or helpful or creative. Kids are using their minds creatively, they’re inventing new shapes, they’re—God knows what they’re doing on this iPad. They’re inventing things at two months.

This line of thinking takes something that’s depriving a child of their parents’ touch and eye contact and attention and reframes it. So I’m absolutely not saying that there weren’t ways to be dismissive and silent and out-to-lunch in previous generations and justify it in other ways, but this is just giving it a new cast and a new justification.

I also understood your argument to be, in part, that it’s a matter of degree. That, yes, people were disconnected before, but being disconnected by looking at the newspaper instead of your kid is not the same degree of disconnect as turning to a device. I also wonder, because these devices are kind of a Band-Aid and distraction, if people are not letting themselves feel bad enough that they become motivated to go through the painful work of constructing a healthy sense of self through something like therapy, even if their parents weren’t the most connected to begin with.

Or it’s being suggested that you could have a robot friend. I actually have colleagues who are suggesting that a robot companion, whether it’s a physical robot or an online discussion, is actually an option, and not a foolish one. That’s why I really wanted to end my book by discussing conversation with machines. To some people, it may seem a little out there, but in five years, people will be talking about me as prescient. [Laughter] I mean, you’re going to have many, many people suggesting to you that you chat with a robot friend. Already, all over Asia, these things are very, very hot. Here, the resistance is a little bit higher. But they’re going to come. And I was certainly able to find kids who already were very comfortable with that and found it very comforting, and parents who looked forward to their children having it, because they saw reasons that it might be a good thing. So I think we’re going to be surprised by how ready we are for robots and how few reasons we’ll have that it’s not a good thing. We’ve left ourselves without our reasons.

One of my motivations for writing the book is that I’m looking forward to people disagreeing about it, not liking it, wanting to fight with me about it. I want to have a conversation about it. I want to hear people trying to come up with the reasons that they might not want to have a conversation with a robot. Do they have any left? And if they don’t have any left, it they can’t think of any reasons, well, then I want to point out how that could be a real problem. They’re suggesting that it’s okay to talk to something that has no idea what they’re talking about.

You write in the book about one study in which you introduced robot companions to the elderly. One day, you saw a woman who’d lost a child talking to a baby seal robot. You write that on its surface, this seemed like a really good and lovely thing that she was taking comfort in this interaction—in fact, that’s what you and your team had been aiming for. But this was a turning point for you, because underneath, there was this terror: What does it mean that we’re trying to shift the basic human responsibility of empathy with another person to a non-sentient being?

Yeah. Everybody on the team was so happy because the whole question we’ve been asking ourselves is, can we get the person to talk to the machine? All my colleagues on my team are brilliant people and they’re good people. They think people are lonely and their technical problem is, can they get a person to talk to a machine? Can they get lonely adolescents to talk to the machine? Can they get lonely old people to talk to the machine? Can they get shut-ins? Can they get wounded war veterans?

But the question is, who’s listening to the person? There’s nobody listening. The social compact is not just about the talking, it’s also about the listening.

The people you quote in this book shared some incredibly intimate stories and feelings with you, about their relationships with technology and with each other. Can you describe how you set the stage for those conversations with your interviewees?

Well, I’m a clinical psychologist, and I have psychoanalytic training. My research interviews are not therapy and they’re not psychoanalysis, but I have that training, so I’m very relaxed about letting the conversation go where it needs to go. Very often, in fact, the interview starts when you’ve turned off the tape recorder and you close your book. [Laughter]

Jill Soloway, who is the director and creator of Transparent, says after she’s said, “Cut,” she keeps the camera rolling for about twenty seconds. And then she gets the actor’s release from the emotion, and that’s when she gets her best material. There’s a very beautiful shot after Jeffrey Tambor’s character admits to one of his children that he’s a woman. And then it’s after she’s said “Cut” that you see this look come over his face that is sort of the release of that emotion. And it’s just an unbelievable moment.

That happens a lot in interviewing. It’s when you close the book, turn off the tape recorder, that then the person sort of opens up: “There’s something I forgot to tell you.” So, for example, one of the great moments came when I was interviewing a lawyer who was saying, “My colleagues don’t want to talk to me, they just want to be on their email. The conversation is dead in the office.” After I had closed the book and shut down the tape recorder, he said, “Actually, I’m lying. I’m the one who doesn’t want to have a conversation. I just find it easier to stay on email. I’ve gotten used to being able to edit everything I do and control my time and multitask and get everything right.” And it was during that conversation that I came up with this notion about the three gifts that you get from your devices—I call it the Goldilocks Effect: not too close, not too far, but just right. He laid out why he was the one who wanted to stay away from face-to-face conversations.

In terms of my process, I choose settings where I’m going to work—an elderly facility, a sleep-away camp where there are no cell phones—and then try to interview a large number of people at those settings. I talk to individuals and groups, and I say very simply, “I’m interested in how you use communications, how you talk to each other.” I don’t go into a lot of detail. I don’t present my hypothesis. I make it clear that it’s confidential. I’m not going to use their name; I’m going to hide their identity. So everybody is disguised and everybody feels pretty safe.

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You argue that our devices are distancing mechanisms that enable an illusion of being able to be perfect, and in so doing reinforce the cultural expectation that we should be. This is frightening but, as you write, so seductive: if we can avoid making mistakes, looking foolish, and the other very, very difficult aspects of being human, why wouldn’t we? And now we kind of have a way to. So, could you talk a little bit more about this phenomenon, and what might motivate us to step out of these safety bubbles when the pull is so strong?

One of the most telling interviews I did was with a teenager who talked about how important it was for him to be perfect. He’s observed how politicians make a slip and everything’s over for them, and he doesn’t want it to happen to him. Of course, he didn’t get into how many politicians make a slip when they’re on email. But he certainly made clear that he felt that if he did things in email, he could have advice and ask his parents to help edit it and ask his friends, and he could present himself as he wanted to be. He felt that he was more in control and, whether it was romance or to teachers or in any setting, that presenting himself three times edited was the way to go. I think this younger generation is phobic about conversation because they feel so vulnerable.

Now, how to get out of it? I guess my book is a kind of cri de coeur. [Laughter] I mean, I think we have to step back and say, “What do we lose if we get into this rehearsed mode of being with each other?” I don’t think we’ve actually stepped back as a culture and taken the measure of what we lose when we do this. And I think it’s just time.

I’m very sympathetic. I don’t feel judgmental. I feel very sympathetic to the people I talk to. They feel they’re getting something really important out of this way of being in the world. And I’m saying, “Take a breath and realize what you’re losing.” And I think they are losing a great deal.

You suggest that the way phones are designed now encourages us to stay on them, on them, on them, cycling through apps—but that they could instead be designed in a way that discourages that circuit and that level of multi-tasking. So can you elucidate what that would look like? And what would inspire a technology company to design such a phone—what’s the benefit for them?

I cite studies that have shown that you can have a great revenue stream without people being constantly on. It depends on how high you feel the stakes are. If you’re introducing something that you’re trying to make increasingly addictive, encouraging a world where we really do have our kind of heads down, it’s like saying, “I built a car that was designed to run at one hundred ten miles per hour because the car feels best at that speed. The engine operates maximally, and the gas ratio, and it’s just the best motor. We can build highways that are best at one hundred ten miles an hour, too.” Meanwhile, people are dying. So you say, “Hold on a second, it wasn’t a good idea.” That’s a dramatic way to put it, but maybe you would want to rethink this.

Or, I think climate change is great example. I mean, we’ve been talking about climate change for a really long time. We’re barely in the zone where we can talk about it and have any kind of consensus that we want to do something about it. We’re barely in the zone. Are we at a moment when we can think about communications technology this way?

I’m arguing that we’re starting to see signs in the culture that we are. I was just talking to a professor at a large university. He said, “I used to love the tutorial system, and now I’m getting exhausted because it’s just so hard to have a conversation with these kids. They’ll go to the phone to illustrate a point instead of talking it through. And it’s not the same thing. Showing me a movie is not the same thing as really thinking it through and arguing it. And they don’t know the difference anymore.” It’s interesting that in the academy, you’re starting to get this sense of, “Hey, we’ve got to do something.” And yet in the academy, we were the first ones to think this was so great; we were the most smitten. I don’t mean this book to be Pollyannaish; I don’t mean for it to end in a happy face. But I think there are some signs that we’re ready to begin a reconsideration.

You write that multitasking doesn’t make us more productive at all, but it makes us feel more productive. It seems very maladaptive that it feels so good. How could this have happened?

It gives us this neurological high. Nicholas Carr does a beautiful job of explaining why in The Shallows. He talks about how so much of what this new technology does triggers neurochemically what we used to get out of going into the wild and seeking. It’s the stimulation of the new and the social—a Google search is like going out to the hunt. And it’s like we’re fighting our biology.

That’s why I talk about vulnerability and a kind of compassion for yourself, that you actually are fighting against your neurochemistry. It’s not a matter of saying, “You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad.” We’re fighting against our neurochemistry, but we have to be smart about it. There’s a reason why everybody’s defending their right to multitask, but I’m just saying there’s a cost to this. But why are you mad at me? You know, if you’re happy with the results of your multi-tasking, you’re a dummy. [Laughter] I mean, it’s like, in universities, it’s a disaster. In business, it’s a disaster. In creative life, it’s a disaster. Why be mad at me?

I found the case of the middle school you document really interesting. You’re called in because the administration sees in its student body a degrading of the normal development of empathy. The current students are not where students used to be or should be at their age, because of the interference of technology. But the administration refuses to let go of teaching with tablets—and the students don’t even want them! But the adults can’t stop. It’s like they’re compelled.

I know, I love that case. They really sound so sympathetic, and then all of a sudden, they’re saying, “Well, but we have to put these tablets in.” They’re getting rid of their library. Say what? [Laughter] Why are you doing that? I mean, it’s kind of like all of a sudden, the smartest people get super dumb.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.