By Sherry Turkle
Reviewed by Betsy Johnson-Miller
Penguin Press, 2015, 436 pp.
It didn’t matter that it was 12 degrees below zero. I climbed into my protesting car and drove to the gym. Dashing inside, I peeled off my layers of clothes and started to walk around the university’s indoor track, cellphone in hand. A tall man, whom I recognized from church, waved and smiled as he jogged past me.
My phone rang. Lost in conversation, I hadn’t noticed the man from church coming up behind me. As he ran past he touched my shoulder and said, “You know, walking is a good time to put your phone down.” I went from anger to embarrassment to the slow realization that had I seen someone walking and talking on his or her cell phone, I would have been thinking the same thing. However, there was a reason—a good reason—why I was talking on my phone. One of my best friends had moved to New York, and one of the things I missed most was our “walk and talks.” We walked together a couple of times a week and had conversations about everything— families, finances, dreams, frustrations. When my friend moved away we tried to stay connected via email, but our hectic lives kept us from being very good at it. So we had decided to do one of our beloved “walk and talks” the only way we could—she would walk in New York, and I would walk in Minnesota while we talked on our cell phones.
This event happened while I was reading Sherry Turkle’s book, which highlights how complicated the bond between technology, relationships, and conversation can be. Turkle talks about how technology can help us connect with people who are thousands of miles away. She also discusses how people turn to technology to “save” them from boredom, uncertainty, or the awkward task of starting up conversations with strangers.
One of the strengths of Turkle’s book is that we hear from real people—usually young people—about how and why they use technology. For example, many of the people she interviewed said that technology has gone a long way in helping them to avoid awkward situations. In addition, many said they love technology because it helps them plan—and edit—what they want to say and, thanks to the delete key, say it exactly the way that they want to say it. One of the reasons people are drawn to this is because many kids—and their parents—work very hard on getting everything right nowadays. One college student said, “When you talk in person, you are likely to make a slip.” The student goes on to say that “our culture has ‘zero tolerance’ for making mistakes.” So why enter into a spontaneous conversation where things could spiral out of control?
One of the trends that Turkle discusses is that some families are now turning to cell phones for family arguments. In this kind of “family meeting 2.0,” families work through their problems by texting instead of having face-to-face conversations. One woman told Turkle that her family does this because these kinds of exchanges “minimize the risk that family members will say something they might regret,” and allow families to “do away with many of the ‘messy and irrational’ parts of a fight.”
Turkle notes another trend: when people continually turn toward technology, they do not learn how to experience solitude and boredom. They never allow themselves to get bored or to daydream. Instead, they depend on an ever-present device to keep themselves occupied. Turkle writes, “When we reach for a phone to push reverie away, we should get into the habit of asking why. Perhaps we are not moving toward our phones but away from something else.” The something else might include anxiety, or an idea that will take hard work. Or we might come face to face with who we really are. For some people, that can be terrifying.
Technology not only helps people plan what they want to say and keeps them busy, it also helps them to plan their exits. Who knows how long a face-to-face conversation might last or how boring it might get? Turkle quotes 26-year-old Trevor, who says, “it still takes a lot to risk having to sit down with each other and just see what happens.” When Turkle asks some 13-year-olds why they don’t just sit down and visit, the kids say that “keeping the exchange online means ‘you can always leave’ and ‘you can do other things on social media at the same time.’”
No matter how much they loved technology, most of the people Turkle interviewed knew how important and vital deep conversations can be. Conversation is where we learn empathy, where we collaborate on big new ideas, where we process what is going on around us—in our lives and in our world. And yet many people can’t seem to tear themselves away from their devices. They know they should, but they don’t want to. Not yet, many of them say.
So what can we do? Turkle says that we can remember that our phone is a “psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are.” We can slow down and protect our quiet time. And we can “create sacred spaces for conversation.”
That’s one of the things we try to do here at the Collegeville Institute. On the first night that writers arrive for a new writing workshop, we point to the no cellphone signs around the main room. We invite the participants to be present and to talk about things that matter. Many of them accept the invitation, and they say it changes their lives. It reminds them that this kind of talking—deep, face-to-face conversation—is vital to their own human flourishing. And they want to do it more often.
The night after my walk and talk, I heard my cell phone ding and cursed the fact that I had accidentally left it in our bedroom instead of putting it on the kitchen counter the way I usually do. My husband must not have heard it, because he didn’t stir. Opening my eyes, I looked at the clock: 5:24 a.m. I was sure it was a notification that my son, who was in his first year at college, had almost used up all of our data for the month. In my mind I grumbled, “He should be asleep. He should quit using his phone so much.”
I knew I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, so I got up, grabbed my phone, and quietly left the bedroom. The message on my phone was from our son: “I’ve never been so homesick in all of my life.” My son had struggled with homesickness for years. He once told me, “It’s just that home is such a good place to be.” His first year in college had been going better than any of us could have imagined. What had happened?
My kids can text while they look me in the eye—a technique Turkle says is called “phubbing.” But I had to use the delete key six times to construct my simple text: “You okay?”
It turns out my son had the stomach flu and had been throwing up for hours. He was lying on the hard, cold floor of his dorm’s bathroom. I told him how much I wished I could be there for him. Then I texted him a few lines from the lullaby I had made up for him and his sister.
“Thank you,” he wrote back. “I love you.”
My son was sick. I couldn’t be there for him. And yet I could.
What technology means for us and for our relationships is complicated, but until artificial intelligence (or something like it) becomes a reality, technology isn’t good or bad in and of itself. As Turkle wisely indicates, it’s like our relationship with food. It’s the choices we make that matter. Will we use it to connect to other people? Or will we use it to disconnect from them? It’s up to us.