Reclaiming Conversation, Part 1

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the sixth in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Sherry Turkle’s most recent book is definitely thought-provoking and timely for me. I recently returned from the American Library Association Conference in Chicago where I met with colleagues from across the country and a reunion in Kalamazoo, Michigan with long-time friends. During that week, I enjoyed face-to-face conversations and late into the night confessions with people I usually communicate with via email and social media. I experienced the deep sense of connection and empathy Sherry Turkle’s research suggests may be missing for many of us who spend most of our time using technology to mediate our “conversations” with others.

To be transparent, I am a long-time reader (and follower) of Turkle’s work. I have read two of her previous titles (cited below) and have watched her TED Talks (“Alone Together” and “Connected, but Alone?”) I highly recommend everything she has written but Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age offered me the most powerful prompts for reflection related to how technology has affected my life and the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues.

Turkle, an MIT professor, studies the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. As with her previous titles, this book is filled with research, anecdotes, and testimonials (and confessions) from individuals and focus groups who have shared with her their experiences with technology. There is no way to adequately summarize this work. Instead, I am sharing a few quotes from the book followed by my responses and connections to my own relationship with technology. I am doing this is two parts–this week and next.

Disclosure: I own a smartphone. I do not use it to its full capacity in terms of apps and the like, but I do listen to audiobooks and music on my phone, send and receive calls and text messages, follow and post to my social media accounts, and use my phone to search for information and directions while traveling. I use my laptop more than my phone. I am a writer. I taught graduate students exclusively online for seven years; my laptop made that possible. My laptop (not my phone) is my life.

In this book, Sherry Turkle makes a compelling case for conversation. She writes: “We are being silenced by our technologies—in a way, ‘cured of talking.’ These silences—often in the presence of our children—have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life. I’ve said that the remedy, most simply, is a talking cure” (9).

Turkle says “recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts” (10). Many “always connected” youth call this space “boredom” and avoid it at all costs. They also find that face-to-face conversations contain “uncomfortable” moments of silence or long pauses when someone is thinking. Some say they must fight the urge to glance down at their phones while waiting for another person to think and speak.

Turkle shares a new strategy some young people have developed to combat that urge. Some groups of young adults play “phone tower” when they go out to dinner. All the phones—left on—are stacked in the middle of the table. The first person whose phone rings AND they reach for it and respond has to pick up the dinner tab. It seems they could simply turn off their phones—but I guess not if they are “addicted” to them and would feel desperate if disconnected.

A new norm Turkle described is the “rule of three.” When a group of four or more people are having a conversation, at least three of them have to be verbally interacting and making eye contact. When those criteria are met, the others are free to look at and use their phones to text, find and present new images or information—always being mindful of their commitment to be one of the three when needed.

Response: I do not have that kind of attachment to my phone or the need to feel always connected. These and others of Turkle’s anecdotes were new to me. I believe they are true, but I had some trouble relating them to my own life.

Response: I remember my surprise ten or so years ago when I learned that a respected colleague (20 years younger) slept with her phone. My phone and I are not that intimate. My daughter and my friends are often dismayed when I do not respond to texts within a “reasonable” time period. (Sometimes I do not respond for a whole day!)

Turkle points out how often she notices parents and babysitters interacting with their phones rather than with the children in their care. Many young children have stopped expecting to have their parents’ full attention. Some parents who ban their children’s phones at the dinner table are still texting or taking calls because they “have to” conduct business 24/7.

Turkle notes that even the mere presence of a phone on the table sets up the expectation that the conversation will be interrupted—an excuse to keep it light rather than of more consequence. She calls this “the flight from conversation” and compares it to climate change. Most of us know it’s true but too many of us don’t think of it as a pressing problem.

As a parent, spouse, educator, and storyteller, I believe this is true: “Eye contact is the most powerful path to human connection” (36). I can believe this loss of connection could result in a decline in empathy. With the large and looming challenges we need to confront in our country and in our interconnected global community, a lack of empathy for “others” is, to me, a very troubling loss.

Next week, I will post the second part of this reflective review.

Work Cited
Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Additional Books by Sherry Turkle
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

This entry was posted in Professional Book Reviews, Technology and tagged , , by Judi Moreillon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Judi Moreillon

Judi Moreillon, M.L.S, Ph.D., has served as a school librarian at every instructional level. In addition, she has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and district-level librarian mentor. Judi taught preservice school librarians for twenty-one years, most recently as an associate professor at Texas Woman's University where she taught courses in instructional partnerships, multimedia resources and services, children’s literature, and storytelling. Her research agenda focuses on the professional development of school librarians for the leadership and instructional partner roles.

4 thoughts on “Reclaiming Conversation, Part 1

  1. I am like you Judi with respect to my phone, but I’m afraid we are two and far between. I recently interviewed with a young gentleman who spent the entire meeting checking his apple watch, (in addition to a relentless amount of questions testing what I knew about the town and district, but that’s another story). No empathy there-that’s for sure! I strongly believe that education’s responsibility to prepare students for “career and college”, not to mention, active citizenship in a democratic society, should include balanced use of technology. I might even argue that this could be considered an ethical use issue. Yes, what’s deemed as appropriate and valuable use of technology ia debatable… which is exactly why we need to be spearheading this discourse with our students!

    • Thanks for your comment, Deb.

      In 2003, a high school civics teacher and I (the school librarian) invited our state representative to speak with several classes during a lunch period. When the teacher and I noticed students on their phones, I passed a basket and collected them. Grumbling students picked them up from me at the end of the school day. In the classroom, the teacher explained the term “rude.”

      I hadn’t thought of this as an “ethical use” issue. I will think more on that.

      Best,
      Judi

  2. We have had a ‘Slow food’ movement and a crafting movement – how soon until we experience a ‘Slow Conversation’ movement? I foresee a time where businesses will need to offer classes to their employees on how to have conversations.

    • Agreed, Heather. School librarians and classroom teachers can start the movement now. We can bring back discussion/civil discourse debate/literature circles and the like in the library! Best, Judi

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