I’m tired of this
As I was preparing to write this blog, I read this excerpt from the book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age By Sherry Turkle. As I was reading it, I got defensive, and then I got frustrated, and then I wanted to throw my laptop on the floor- but I didn’t because I knew that’s just what Sherry Turkle would have wanted.
I am very conscious of the burdens of technology. The negative impacts of social media and technology is well documented, whether it be the daily distraction or connections to anxiety and depression.
HOWEVER, I think it’s time to flip the narrative. Now, I want to talk about the resilience of the human mind, our capacity for socialization, and the lived experiences of the children of the digital era.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age was published in 2015 around the time I was in sophmore year or high school. Sherry Turkle is a licensed clinical psychologist who has spent her career studying the relationships between humans and technology.
One major assertion she makes is that the departure from face-to-face conversations and the introduction of text and email is destroying the “conversation,” thereby resulting in a decline in empathy among young people.
What I find ironic is that Turkle is failing to empathize with the generation in question. There is certainly no conversation to be found in the text. It comes off as a claim of communication exceptionalism.
The image conjured in my mind is that of an old woman shaking a cane at me and telling me to get off her lawn.
The Responsibilities of Friendship
It may sound like I’m being hard on Turkle, but she took some jabs at me as well (intentional or not).
She said, “From the early days, I saw that computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy.”
Let’s have an exercise in empathy:
You’re in middle school. You sit in the passenger seat of your mother’s car and stare out the window as she drives you to the mall. However, this mall is 45 minutes away; it’s the most central location your friends could think of since everyone lives in different towns. You met them on Tumblr and you call them on Skype every day when you get home from school. You tell them everything, and they tell you everything. Your mom grumbles as you hit traffic, “I just don’t understand why you can’t just find friends who live in the same town.”
Months have passed and you consider these people to be your closest friends. You’ve been there for each other for good times and for bad… this is a bad time. You keep pulling out your phone at soccer practice. You can’t stop checking because your friend is saying he is going to leave the friend group. The more the group shows concern for him, the more he pushes away. He stops responding to your texts. That night, you stay on skype with everybody and search through the phonebook for his dad’s number because this isn’t the first time your friend has threatened suicide. He never talks to you again, but he’s alive.
What did adults think we were texting about? “lol hi” “wut up? roflcopter” ”idk, my bff jill?” NO. Us dumb, “woefully indocterinated” kids were actually talking to one another.
And yes, we knew the difference between text and face-to-face conversations.
The “Value Proposition”
Turkle spoke about talks she had with “new generations.” According to Turkle, the new generations said,
“If you text or iChat, isn’t that talking? And besides, you can get your message ‘right.’ What’s wrong with that?”
Turkle advocates for the potential of conversation to create “imperfection, loss of control, and boredom.” She fears this is being lost. She claims,
“Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathetic, less connected, less creative, and fulfilled… But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and message, these studies may be describing losses they don’t feel. They didn’t grow up with a lot of face to face talk.”
Let’s have another exercise in empathy:
You’re in high school and you’ve just started texting your crush. It’s actually going really well and even though you have school tomorrow, you stay awake. You close your eyes and wait for the next vibration of your phone on the pillow. Buzz….. buzz….. buzz. You reply too fast to each one. You smile in the light of the screen until you both succumb to exhaustion. You roll over in bed, holding a pillow to your heart- still smiling. In that moment you’re alone, but you feel light.
You start dating. This is your first real relationship, Your first love even? You date for several months, staying up late, sharing bits of yourselves that you’ve never shared with anyone. It’s amazing until it isn’t- he’s about to go to college and you’re still in high school. You try distance; you keep in touch over text, saying good morning and good night each day. When you’re lost in conversation on Facetime, nothing else matters. However, soon this physics, philosophy double major feels a little too enlightened for cell phones; he would neglect to charge it for days, leaving you in the dark. He breaks up with you over Skype. For the next 4 months, you want desperately to text him. Instead you write several long messages that bare your soul; that ask him all the questions you need answered; that call him all the names he deserves. Those messages get saved to drafts instead.
Human relationships are wrought with imperfection, loss of control, and boredom. They are also full of joy, humor, and love. Technology does not exclude us from the full range of human emotion. Humans actually learn to adapt to their situations with or without technology.
Furthermore, the idea that those who grew up with technology only interact with technology is absurd.
The Compulsion to Be Here With You Now
Turkle admires the life of famous transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, and his 3 chairs: solitude, friendship, and society. She talked about how technology breaks this cycle by distracting us or giving us falsified versions of the real thing.
She goes on to praise a summer camp that restricts the use of cell phones, forcing children to appreciate nature and the company of one another.
Let’s embark on a final exercise in empathy.
The summer after senior year, you have a fire pit in the back yard with a few friends. It’s one of the last chances to spend time like this, one of the last chances to be a kid. You talk for hours, you play games, you laugh hysterically, and wonder out loud about what comes next. At one point you check your phone to find a slew of notifications. You hadn’t noticed. You didn’t think to check, you were too taken with the people and the stars overhead.
College comes and you make every effort to stay in touch over text, but it’s proving to be difficult. You try to be present in the moment and meet the people in your college class but you can’t tell if they like you or not. You feel most at home when you make time for those 3 hour long calls with old friends. You find out that the friendships that last are that ones where you can pick up right where you left off.
Children of the technological era have real relationships. Texting has its advantages, but I’ve never met a single person who prefers texting over the real thing.
When we put away our phones, we do it because we want to be present with the people around us. It’s a choice rather than a last resort. Often we don’t even have to think about it.
I actually agree with a lot of what Turkle says. I also disagree with quite a bit of it.
This isn’t the first technological revolution. This isn’t the first generation to misunderstand the one that came next. However it is happening bigger and faster than ever before.
I still believe that humans will retain their humanity. Each advancement ushers in something new, and something old is lost. The oral tradition gave way to the written word, radio gave way to the TV, the ugly duckling gave way to the swan, etc.
These pieces of history should be preserved in some capacity, just as new isn’t alway better, old isn’t alway better. (and I don’t even believe face-to-face conversation is a thing of the past!)
Nostalgia for a time long past when the world was kinder and life was simpler is a delusion. Each generation, will in some capacity, think their upbringing is best.
What Makes Us Human
Turkle talked about the compulsion of pick up your phone so as to not be alone. Its true, this is bad, but I’m tired of hearing that our generation is so mentally and emotionally stunted.
So Turkle, you’re telling me that you wax philosophical at the dinner table; you find kinship with your fellow man when you have to break an uncomfortable silence; and you discover a new dimension of your identity in the checkout line of the grocery store.
I just don’t believe you. And I don’t believe technology is this social ill that needs to be cured, not in that way.
People are starting businesses on Facebook, they’re sharing art on Instagram, they’re writing symphonies on Tik Tok. People are laughing, and debating, and learning, and falling in love, and breaking each other’s hearts, and putting themselves back together again all over technology: not because technology is so great, but because people are amazing.
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