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.

The last five weeks of change11 – How do you live and learn online?

We’re reaching the end of the marathon that has been the change11 mooc. When looking back over the close to thirty weeks we’ve been in this so far… no. I’m not going to. We need to finish. And finish strong. Who’s with me? We’ve got some really excellent guest hosts left. We’ve got some really good ideas to talk about.

Burnt out on the change11 mooc? Lets imagine that we’re doing Change12… Like were starting over with a five week MOOC. This week…

Diana Laurillard – Digital support for teaching as a design science
Come now. She’s famous in education circles. check out this profile. Definitely worth your time!

George Siemens – Sensemaking, wayfinding, networks, and analytics
I find it hard to say nice thing about George that he will read, but I promise you that whatever he does will make you think. His perspectives on sensemaking and wayfinding were worked out in his recently finished PhD, and he’s been working on networks all over the world. Worth it. check.

George Veletsianos – Scholars’ online participation and practices
What are academics doing in online public spaces? What are their intentions and what are their fears? Are faculty members’ altruistically sharing information on social media for the benefit of the community in which they belong? Or, is information-sharing a self-serving activity?
You need to know the answer to these questions, clearly. worth it. check.

Bonnie Stewart – Digital Identities & Subjectivities
Bonnie’s work on on identity and the web on her blog and on MOOCs in University of Venus continue to push the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves as learning beings online. You need that. worth it. check.

Terry Anderson – Open Scholarship
Canada research chair in distance Ed. Runs IRRODL, and is on the editorial board of a bunch of other open journals. He’s been working and publishing in this space at a huge level for years. check.

What can we do in Five weeks? – Plan your digital future

Forget that #change11 started a year ago. Forget that you may or may not have been engaged in every (or any) weeks so far. We have diverse and excellent speakers all talking about how we live and learn online. Here’s my challenge to you…

Track your own design approach, your sensemaking practices, your approach to scholarship and performing identity. Blog about it. Who are you as a learner, as an teacher, formal or otherwise.

How do you live and learn online?

And tag it #change11

A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley

I’ve committed to taking the work i’ve been doing around rhizomatic learning to the next level this year. I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like, but hopefully it will at least mean a few more papers and some better thinking. One of the steps that I’ve taken in the last few days is to setup a mendeley group dedicated to rhizomatic learning and seeing what we can do about gathering the scant existing publications together into one place. So far the response has been very good, and a considerable about of stuff has been gathered.

But what to do with it all?

A lit review
If you go over to the group page on Mendeley you’ll see a number of papers, a bunch of people, a brief description of the group and a link. That link goes to a googledoc. It’s occurred to me that the only way i’m going to be able to organize my own thoughts about the papers that are being put into group is to have some contextual piece that will walk people through it. I may, over time, become familiar enough with all the papers to not need this crutch. But i will certainly need it over the short term, and it would seem that it could be useful for others.

There is something terribly ironic about applying this much structure to a concept that in some ways IS structural resistance itself. But, much like D&G suggest in their own introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, we have to do something. If i’m going to further my own work, share work with others, then we need some kind of context within which we can work some kind of exchange.

My own goal is to see if it is possible to create a practical teaching/learning approach grounded in the philosophy represented in those articles. Something that starts way over in the netherworld of french post 1960 philosophy, and finishes in someone’s classroom. I’m starting to get asked the question… “how would i do this in my school/classroom”. I don’t know if there are answers to this question, but i’m going to try and find out 🙂

The language challenge
Rhizomatic learning is based, however enigmatically, in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. They are French and, to put it broadly, difficult to define. Some would call them postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers, but they did not particularly seem to like those terms. I will not delve into that debate here, suffice it to say that they have a particular way of looking at the world, and an entire language built up around how to talk about that. Some of that language they inherited from philosophers and psychoanalysts before the, some, frankly, they simply made up or so profoundly changed from their usual meaning that they might as well have made them up.

This special language makes any work on rhizomes (and associated concepts) a very difficult one. I feel very passionately about the narrative that emerges from D&G’s work and believe that it has a very important story to tell about education, learning, complexity and uncertainty. I always tend to get caught, however, between speaking in technical terms about the philosophy behind it, and speaking in terms that people unfamiliar with the French Philosophical context will accept at face value.

Lets try… decalcomania – one of the characteristics of the rhizome

according to wikipedia it

“is a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials.”

It evolved to a surealist practice of

tracing without an original

which seems more appropriate to the usage that D&G mean for it. Awesomely, the same wikipedia entry claims that decalcomania is the root work of Cockamamy, which was a deliberate mispronunciation. It was also shortened to ‘decal’. This, then, is the accepted usage of the word.

According to a quote stolen from a colleague (Keith Hamon) for Deleuze and Guattari decalcomania is

“forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction.”

I recently described it as

“They grow and spread via experimentation within a context”

Without using the term decalcomania at all.

They are similar, certainly, but its not an easy voyage from one to the other. Plus, the word shape itself (with ‘mania’ at the end) suggests that its meaning may be more esoteric and psychobabbely. This without even opening up the discussion about the actual biological nature of the rhizome.

And i’ve lost some of the deeper political meaning with my translation. I had a similar conversation a few weeks ago with my concerns over the translation of ‘war machine’ from ‘machine de guerre’.

Working through the language in a group is going to be a struggle. Those of us crossing disciplines always get into trouble over this i suppose, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

A way forward
So i’m going to go ahead and keep adding to my lit review document. And whether it’s a document that i finish three years from now, by myself, or something where a bunch of others join in and we publish it somewhere with 20 authors is of no great concern to me. I’ll poke away at it, feel free to do the same yourself.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.