Sherry Turkle – the flight from conversation… a response

In today’s New York Times post Sherry Turkle talks about the value of conversation AND solitude and the limitations of digital connection. It’s a difficult piece to read, not for its overfocus on context/stories/facts or for its technical language, it lacks both, but for the way it which it will polarize the reader. You probably know already whether you will like it. She critiques the new technologies of connection for both cheapening conversation and eliminating solitude. In this piece I’m going to try and unravel one of these arguments from the whole and address the way that Turkle hearkens back to an imaginary past where people had long, meaningful conversations with each other about what was important to them… she creates a simulacrum.

The unravelling – solitude good, but not relevant
The points that are made in the article about solitude are very compelling. I think she’s entirely right about the slow dying of solitude, and the need for free thinking space. I think that I as a person and as a parent need to model the value of alone time, of thinking time, of device free time. This is not new, the radio and the TV have started this process… and my Galaxy SII has continued it. All true. It is not, however, either the title or the direction of the article. It is an entirely separate stream of very reasonable arguments that seem, at first, to support her main thesis… That conversation is being turned away from, when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

So. Out with the solitude arguments. The author’s long walks on the beach and her advice to take free quiet alone time is well noted and not relevant to the argument.

To conversation

The piece is difficult in that it claims a great deal of research (presented in Alone Together) but cherry picks out a few anecdotal examples meant to illustrate her points. This confuses things, as it seems to draw on the history of research… where one would expect someone trying to see the whole story, and yet we only hear of the examples of people connecting superficially.

  1. A boy who wants dating advice from a computer, because it has more data to work with
  2. a nursing home resident who is comforted by a mechanical seal
  3. another 16 year old hoping to learn how to have real conversations some day
  4. a business person sitting down with all their technology and putting on headphones

These are all visceral examples… we see the future of relationships ruined, a poor old lady in a nursing home deceived, and, most importantly, the end of conversation. The idea, one supposes, is that we are replacing the excellence and ‘good for you’ challenge of the messy face2face conversation between humans with other fill ins. I will leave aside those of you who take comfort in music, dogs, cats, chocolate and the thousands of other things we use to comfort ourselves and let you all defend your non-human ways of connecting. I want to look at how she describes what conversation ‘used to be’… or at least, what it can be.

What turkle says about conversation
With each of these quotes, we are left to understand that these are the kinds of conversation that our two young people, our nursing home resident, our business person and ourselves will be having.

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience.

Face-2-face conversation mostly doesn’t and never has unfolded slowly. It teaches power. In many conversations people express their own personal power over each other, whether it be in their right to speak, to speak first, to control the direction of conversation and it’s content. Equally true i would say. There are a very few people with whom i EVER have slow patient conversations with. I have met some of them online and never in person. My partner is one of them. They are rare and beautiful… but not common. I leave it to you to tell me if they were EVER common.

Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.

Self-reflection requires confidence (and maybe trust). It requires the courage to look deeply into yourself and see the good and well as the bad. To think about it and share it is difficult. Connected, probably, to her points about solitude but not about conversation. Blogging has been doing self-reflection very well… for years. I share my self-reflections as many other people do with my blog through twitter or Facebook.

If there were anything challenging about social media its the massive amount of self-reflection that i see… sometimes i have to turn it off being overloaded with it. Finding self-reflection in face2face conversation can be very difficult… I’ve collected some very, very good friends over my life, and that’s one of the things that I look for. It is hard… and again, not that common.

During the years I have spent researching people and their relationships with technology, I have often heard the sentiment “No one is listening to me.” ” Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for one another?”

This is used as an explanation for why people turn to social media… that they need to find someone to connect with. Certainly in our case, baby-loss was one of those things. If it hasn’t happened to you, it is very difficult to listen to someone else talk about it. People find like-experienced people through social media… they connect, and share. It’s good. Finding someone who can talk to you, who can listen to you is very important. And easier if you have a wider network. I have seen sad tweets from friends, and called them to setup some time to talk… or at least called them just to talk. Social media is part of my life… on and offline line.

When was this point in the past when we HAD confidence in each other? I can’t imagine. Was there some magical past when we could look next door, when we needed someone to comfort us, and someone was available to listen to us? Not in my past.

Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.

Absolutely. But this isn’t because of texts or emails or facebook… it’s because of life. ANd has ALWAYS been because of life.

The simulacra
Sherry Turkle has been at this for a long time. She has a cutting eye for seeing the in-between space of how technology influence our own lives. In this new york times piece she does an excellent job arguing for solitude. I yearn for it… and agree with her. When she turns to conversation, she loses me entirely. She has either had a uniquely perfect life filled with excellent and constantly available friends, or she has not been honest with herself. She is hearkening back to a past that never existed. Creating an image of perfection, of utopia, before the present time. Baudrillard called this a simulacra. One of the famous examples is ‘main-street’ USA at Disney. A perfect past, from the 50’s, where everyone was friendly, where yards were clean, people had job and all was happy. And a past, obviously, where everyone had profound, slow, supportive conversations with each other. But only at Disney.

Sherry. Look at this website. Tell me how this connection is like what you describe. The technology can make this happen, and it can allow us to be fantastically superficial. Just like everything. Turning off the computer does not equal ‘better’ conversation.

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