Talking To Sherry Turkle About Relational Communication and the Digital Media

“I believe that unconstrained, face-to-face conversation is the only way we can build empathy. Without it, there's little hope for meaningful human interaction.”

Sherry Turkle delivering her TED talk. Source: TED

Sherry Turkle delivering her TED talk. Source: TED

The Tang Building sits on the southern edge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, overlooking the river whose grey this autumn afternoon acts as a foil to the gold and auburn of the trees across its wide span. I rush up the stairs to the second floor – I am a minute past the appointed hour – and arrive, just a little out of breath, on the second floor. The corridor is dark and the roomy lobby leading to the room that bears the number I’ve been given is even darker. I check my phone again to make sure I have it right and then venture inside, flipping the light switch and finding a spot on a comfortable sofa.

One never feels quite prepared for an interview. Especially when it involves someone who has already been in the media eye over the years, whose engaging commentaries on life in the digital age have found their way to the TED stage and from there into millions of YouTube and Facebook shares, whose books straddle the academic and popular; someone who could be the Nora Ephron of social science literature (okay, maybe I’ve gone out on a limb there).

Five minutes later she breezes in, pulling her dark blue coat tighter around her as she apologises for the slight delay. Her small frame and open face don’t quite match the composed, flawlessly made-up presence in the TED talks or the television interviews.

“Sit anywhere you want,” she says, her arm sweeping an arc across the long and busy bookshelf-lined room furnished with three overstuffed sofas and an assortment of small chairs. I sink into a set of deep white cushions. Somehow, it seems the right kind of place for a psychology professor (I see a metal cut-out of Freud peeping out from behind another sofa) who likes to hold her smaller seminars in the office. “I can fit in about 15 students here,” she says, putting her bag away and settling down.

“I’ve just had an injection for my migraine,” she explains, as she politely but firmly declines my request to audio-record the interview and warns me that she doesn’t want any photos either. “I don’t feel quite myself.”

“But go ahead and ask me anything you want. I just don’t want it on tape.”

Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Science, Technology and Society Program at MIT. Trained and certified as a counselling psychologist, she is better known for her work on the impact of digital devices on social life and relationships. She has led a program at MIT on researching the use and possible impacts of social robots, particularly among children and the elderly. She has been writing about the Internet and what it does to/for us right from the point at which computers became popular objects—of use and investigation.

Her early books on digital culture: The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 1985) and Life on the screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster, 1995) were celebratory tracts on the new technology that was permeating our lives. Using a combination of postmodern theory, philosophy and ideas from social and behavioural psychology, she deconstructed the space of the network and spoke in positive and hopeful terms about its liberating potential. The fluid, open and pervasive medium, she said, would allow us to redefine ourselves and connect to each other in new and emancipatory ways. The computer was the “second self” which lay deep inside us, hiding from view because we were too shy or scared or unaware. and now, the possibility of expression from behind a veil of anonymity would allow that inner self to express itself in creative ways.

Roughly a decade later, another book by Turkle made waves, not the least because she was seen to have made a complete turnaround on her earlier position, moving from techno-utopianism to techno-scepticism. In Alone Together (Basic Books, 2012), she decried the isolating effects of information technology, pointing to the increasing immersion in personal digital tools such as mobile phones and tablets. “It was a book that was 15 years in the making,” she says. “Even as I was finishing the first book, I began to have doubts about what I was saying … but I didn’t want to screw up that book so close to completion.”

She began to work toward articulating this new idea that was forming, collecting data to support her suspicion that the technology, far from connecting us, was disconnecting us on a deeper, emotional level. “The primary idea in this book was ‘I share, therefore I am,’” she explains. (In another interview, with James Nolan in the Hedgehog Review, she describes Alone Together as “an act of repentance” for her earlier celebration of the Internet and digitality.)

And as she was putting away the last notes on that book, another realisation began forming: “People were saying, ‘I’d rather text than talk’, and so I wanted to fully explore that.”

This grew into the latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015), where she argues passionately for the recentering of intimate, relational face-to-face dialogue in human life, particularly within families and friendship networks.

The loss of conversation to texting and digitally mediated communication has resulted in the replacement of conversation by mere connection, notes Turkle, ultimately creating what she describes as an “empathy gap”. “Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-technology,” she says. “I’m just pro-conversation.” Replacing face to face with mediated communication, even when using video-conferencing tools like Skype and FaceTime, takes away the possibility of rich, unpredictable, mutually reinforcing and exploratory interaction. “Think about children spending a weekend with grandparents, traveling a distance to be with them, then watching them prepare meals, getting to know their rhythms, their smells, witnessing their growing frailty…those are the things that build empathy,” she says. “And when you replace that with Skype conversations, however frequent, you lose that possibility of building empathy.”

“Our communication through technology tends to be more instrumental, more specific,” she goes on. “You lose all the boring bits.” The “boring bits” in her book, are the ones that often are the most important in terms of adding complexity and depth to relationships.

“I think we should go back to watching television together, in our homes,” she says, in a sudden turn of the conversation. “Television opens up spaces for talk – and talking leads to more talking.” She tells me about her own experience of watching television – the Ed Sullivan Show – with her grandparents in their Brooklyn home. “I learned, from those evenings, about their politics, about their biases and beliefs, when they shared their reactions to things that were going on in the show, and that led to other conversations about how they felt about other things.”

(I’m not completely convinced that television universally prompts conversation – I’ve had too much experience with groups sitting in glazed-eye silence in front of screens, the only movement their hands reaching for peanuts or potato chips, or maybe, the remote! But I’m willing to accept the possibility, for now.)

“[Digital communication] technology is particularly closed ended,” she continues. “What we need is more spaces where we can be completely relaxed, completely attentive to the people around us.”

How much of this springs from our own nostalgia, as a generation, for the “good old times”? “Yes of course, I am nostalgic, about empathy,” she insists, unapologetically. “I believe that open-ended, unconstrained, face-to-face conversation is the only way we can continue to build empathy, and without empathy, there is little hope for continued meaningful human interaction.”

She paints a bleak picture of a world without empathy. “Think about our lives as teachers – can you imagine a classroom full of young people who have no idea how to put themselves in each other’s – or your – shoes? Because they’ve lost the ability to simply engage with each other without their devices?”

“After all, it’s because we are sitting here, and you are willing to listen to my excuses about my health, and I am willing to accommodate your interest in speaking with me, that makes this conversation possible. In the course of this exchange, we discover interesting things… because we are empathetic.” I can’t really argue with that.

Usha Raman teaches writing and digital media culture at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus, a magazine for school teachers. This article was originally published on her blog, and is republished here with permission.