I have just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin: 2015). Being without a smartphone, and never having texted in my life, I found Turkle’s research into what smartphones are doing to young people (and to many of their parents) shocking. Consider some stats first: a) average Americans check their smartphones every 6-1/2 minutes (actually, college students in one of Turkle’s classes say that they can sometimes go 3 minutes without a phone check, but the more likely limit is 2 minutes!) b) fully one-fourth of American teens connect to a device within 5 minutes of waking (80% sleep with their phones). c) most teenagers send about 100 texts every day. d) 44 percent of teens do not “unplug” ever. Now let me quote what Turkle says about the power these smartphones have to enslave us: “It (the smartphone) is not an accessory. It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are” (319). Keep that in mind: using a smartphone changes who you are, it changes your brain, it changes how you behave, it changes how you talk and relate to and treat other people—and mostly not for the better. This is the sum and substance of Turkle’s (she is a professor of sociology and psychology at MIT who specializes in the effect of technology on modern life) book. Though it may not be too late (her title implies that we can, if we are determined to, ‘reclaim conversation’), Turkle’s research shows that things have gone very far indeed.
Let me cite just a few of the examples Turkle provides. First of all are the rules that young people now live by—and here I should say that I found myself at first contemptuous of, and then feeling deep sympathy for, these kids (to me, even the thirty-somethings are kids who have grown up with technology) whose interactions like dinner or dating are now governed by their devices and the “apps” they apply there. The rules are ubiquitous and bizarre, but clearly necessary. There’s the “rule of two or three” at meals: students Turkle interviewed at one college, that is, make sure that at least two people in a group of seven or so at dinner are NOT on their phones before they allow themselves to check theirs; if fewer than two were paying attention to the conversation, it wouldn’t work. As Eleanor says of observing the rule, “It’s my way of being polite.” The corollary is that conversations, even at dinner, even among friends, are fragmented (and hence “lighter” of necessity): everyone is more interested in checking what might be on their phones, or who might be texting and require an immediate response, than in the people they’re actually with—much less what they’re saying.
And this gets to one of the major points in the book. The ability to converse is atrophying among smartphone users. Family members at dinner constantly check their phones. Kids in class and on dates and at parties check their phones. And much of the checking involves texting—the major form of communication among phone users. That is, people don’t “talk” to each other on their phones; they “text” each other. And there are strict rules among friends—many kids number as many as 100 texting friends in their circle—who text. If someone texts you with an ‘emergency’ (for teens, every slight is an emergency), you have at most 5 minutes to respond. If you don’t comply within that time limit, then you risk losing that friend because your delay in responding is taken as an insult. So kids with phones tend to be hypervigilant—they don’t want to miss an important text, which is why they can’t stand not checking their phones every 2 minutes. The other reason they can’t stand not checking their phones is what they have acronymed FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Something better than what’s happening here and now might be going on. FOMO haunts even those who are at parties, or in bed with a partner! One of Turkle’s informants described being at a party, but being compelled to check her phone (everyone was doing this for the same reason) to see if a friend was at another party that might be hotter. A college student described being in bed with a guy, who got up to go to the bathroom—which impelled her to take out her phone to check her Tinder app to see what men in her area might be interested in meeting, and more. Her comment: “I have no idea why I did this—I really like the guy…I want to date him, but I couldn't help myself. Nothing was happening on Facebook; I didn’t have any new emails” (38). A recent grad named Trevor told Turkle about his college graduation party where “people barely spoke” but “looked at their phones.” And this was okay because
Everyone knew that when they got home they would see the pictures of the party. They could save the comments until then. We weren’t really saying good-bye. It was just good-bye until we got to our rooms and logged onto Facebook (138).
In other words, life is not what’s happening in reality, face to face; it’s what gets reported on Facebook. Likewise, conversation doesn’t happen by talking face to face; that’s too risky; one might say something rash or erroneous. Conversation is what happens on Gchat or when texting—where one can edit one’s response (or breakup messages) and make them perfect. Real conversation is just too fraught with uncertainty, with emotion, with risk, with the mess that is human life.
This is serious, America. These machines are changing the way human beings interact. They are changing the way humans feel about each other, literally changing if they can feel about each other. And that is another of Turkle’s major points here. Based on her research and consultations with middle schools in her area, she points out that without the give and take of face-to-face conversation, many young people are losing no less than the defining human capacity of empathy. A researcher at Stanford, Clifford Nass, specifically looked into the emotional capacity of freshmen at Stanford. He compared the emotional development of women who characterized themselves as “highly connected” to those spending less time online, and found that the former had a weaker ability to identify the feelings of other people (which is what empathy involves), and actually felt less accepted by their peers. As Turkle summarizes it, “Online life was associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection” (41). And no wonder. Texting has become the substitute for having to look someone in the eye, of having to see emotions in their faces and bodies, especially when we have to discuss something that might be stirring or painful. Face-to-face conversation is “too risky”—that’s how most young people put it. Another person’s response to you might get too emotional. And it’s not just teenagers. Mothers and whole families now have fraught family discussions on Gchat so as to avoid possible eruptions of emotion or words that hurt. It takes the risk out of family dynamics, they say. One never has to face someone yelling. But what is being lost? is Turkle’s question. And her answer is that essentially, our human-ness is being lost. Children “are being deprived” she says, “not only of words but of adults who will look them in the eye.” And as countless volumes of research have shown, eye contact is vital to “emotional stability and social fluency: deprived of eye contact, infants become agitated, then withdrawn, then depressed” (108). As to empathy, it seems to be more or less out the window. Turkle quotes teachers at a middle school she consults with:
When they hurt each other, they don’t realize it and show no remorse. When you try to help them, you have to go over it over and over with them, to try to role-play why they might have hurt another person. And even then, they don’t seem sorry. They exclude each other from social events, parties, school functions, and seem surprised when others are hurt…They are not developing that way of relating where they listen and learn how to look at each other and hear each other (164).
When one looks at how romance and other interactions are handled, one can see why. Turkle, for example, describes the NOTHING gambit. This refers to not responding to a flirtatious text. Just silence, nothing. One girl calls it “a way of driving someone crazy…you don’t exist.” And then the proper way to respond to nothing is to pretend, in turn, that it didn’t happen. Because trying to text again saying “Why don’t you get back to me” is simply “not cool.” It’s being a loser. So is responding too quickly to a text. Ryan says, for example, that if a woman responds to his text immediately, it might be good, but it might also mean “She’s psycho, man” (188).
What a terrible burden this must be. The weight of always wanting to know if the other person is interested has always been a cause of anxiety in romantic encounters. But at least when the brushoff happens face to face, something is settled; a human interaction is, literally, faced. Here, nothing is. All simply dissolves in nothingness. You don’t exist. And having to wonder if even someone you apparently have a connection with is possibly checking out Tinder or some other app for a better party or a better partner (there are always dozens of ‘partners’ available on Tinder)--that must be agonizing.
Of course, when technology becomes a problem—as Turkle suggests it is—there are always those who count on more technology to solve the problem. Robots seem to be the current solution of choice among MIT engineers. Here is where Turkle takes her story in the end, and it is not encouraging. Apparently, AI engineers are working hard to design robots that can actually provide the “eye contact” and “human” conversation that we are no longer getting from our apps. Speculation is rife that robots will soon be able to perform the daunting caretaking tasks that a fast-growing older population requires. Not enough humans to do the dirty work? Design robots to provide what’s lacking, even as babysitters. And there is data from some primitive robots already among us about how it’s working. In one encounter, Turkle describes what happened when a 12-year-old girl named Estelle was used as a subject to interact with a robot named Kismet. Kismet ‘listens’ attentively to Estelle (elsewhere, Turkle notes that the “feeling that no one is listening to me” plays a large part in what we try to solve with technology), simulates human facial expressions, pretends deep interest in what Estelle says. All goes well until a glitch in Kismet’s program leads to a break in the contact, and Kismet turns away. Estelle is deeply disappointed and shows it by eating cookies voraciously. When pushed to explain, she laments tearfully that Kismet didn’t like her; the robot turned away. The researchers explain that it was simply a technical problem and had nothing to do with her, but Estelle is not consoled. She thinks it’s her failure that Kismet doesn’t “like” her (the “like” on Facebook has become the standard for judging ourselves and our appeal). Another instance involves a young girl named Tara who, in all her actions, is the “perfect child.” But her mother notices that she sometimes talks to Siri, the talking app developed by Apple. And when she does, she vents all the anger on Siri that she has suppressed elsewhere. Tara compartmentalizes, in other words: she has to be perfect with people, but can be angry with Siri. Turkle comments thusly: “if Tara can ‘be herself’ only with a robot, she may grow up believing that only an object can tolerate her truth” (347).
Is this the place we're getting to, one where only machines can tolerate us? This would be a brave new world, indeed. And the grim truth seems to be that some of us are already there. Sherry Turkle wants us to change. She wants us to “reclaim conversation” with each other, before it’s too late. She draws hope from the fact that the human brain is capable of changing. She has seen this in summer camps where children are prevented from having devices of any kind, and where after a short time, they do reclaim their human interest in each other and what’s around them. But she has a warning as well, especially as regards our attempts to fill the well of human loneliness with robots (or machines of any kind). This is because engineers have already shown that they can build toys for children (Furbies, etc.) that feign feelings, and that, by getting the child to care for them, instill feelings of attachment in the child for what is a lifeless object, a machine. This takes advantage of a well-known phenomenon: humans tend to impute human feelings to that which seems human—like talking apps that simulate conversation, like our computers. And so, one of her conclusions goes like this:
Nurturance turns out to be a “killer app.” Once we take care of a digital creature or teach or amuse it, we become attached to it, and then behave “as if” the creature cares for us in return (352).
Killer app indeed. There are many of them already, busily doing their grim work as human surrogates. For, as Turkle writes, “Now we have to ask if we become more human when we give our most human jobs away” (362). It ought to be clear what Turkle thinks about this, and what I think. The question is, do enough others care enough to think about it? How about you (having been reached, of course, electronically)?