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authorSean Whitton <>2017-02-06 19:52:21 -0700
committerSean Whitton <>2017-02-06 19:52:21 -0700
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+On Friday night I attended a talk by Sherry Turkle called "Reclaiming
+Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age". Here are my notes.
+Turkle is an anthropologist who interviews people from different
+generations about their communication habits. She has observed
+cross-generational changes thanks to (a) the proliferation of instant
+messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger; and (b) fast
+web searching from smartphones.
+Her main concern is that conversation is being trivialised. Consider
+six or seven college students eating a meal together. Turkle's
+research has shown that the etiquette among such a group has shifted
+such that so long as at least three people are engaged in
+conversation, others at the table feel comfortable turning their
+attention to their smartphones. But then the topics of verbal
+conversation will tend away from serious issues -- you wouldn't talk
+about your mother's recent death if anyone at the table was texting.
+There are also studies that purport to show that the visibility of
+someone's smartphone causes them to take a conversation less
+seriously. The hypothesis is that the smartphone is a reminder of all
+the other places they could be, instead of with the person they are
+A related cause of the trivialisation of conversation is that people
+are far less willing to make themselves emotionally vulnerable by
+talking about serious matters. People have a high degree of control
+over the interactions that take place electronically (they can think
+about their reply for much longer, for example). Texting is not
+open-ended in the way a face-to-face conversation is. People are
+unwilling to give up this control, so they choose texting over
+What is the upshot of these two respects in which conversation is
+being trivialised? Firstly, there are psycho-social effects on
+individuals, because people are missing out on opportunities to build
+relationships. But secondly, there are political effects.
+Disagreeing about politics immediately makes a conversation quite
+serious, and people just aren't having those conversations. This
+contributes to polarisation.
+Note that this is quite distinct from the problems of fake news and
+the bubbling effects of search engine algorithms, including Facebook's
+news feed. It would be much easier to tackle fake news if people
+talked about it with people around them who would be likely to
+disagree with them.
+Turkle understands connection as a capacity for solitude and also for
+conversation. The drip feed of information from the Internet prevents
+us from using our capacity for solitude. But then we fail to develop
+a sense of self. Then when we finally do meet other people in real
+life, we can't hear them because we just use them to try to establish
+a sense of self.
+Turkle wants us to be more aware of the effects that our smartphones
+can have on conversations. People very rarely take their phone out
+during a conversation because they want to escape from that
+conversation. Instead, they think that the phone will contribute to
+that conversation, by sharing some photos, or looking up some
+information online. But once the phone has come out, the conversation
+almost always takes a turn for the worse. If we were more aware of
+this, we would have access to deeper interactions.
+A further respect in which the importance of conversation is being
+downplayed is in the relationships between teachers and students.
+Students would prefer to get answers by e-mail than build a
+relationship with their professors, but of course they are expecting
+far too much of e-mail, which can't teach them in the way
+interpersonal contact can.
+All the above is, as I said, cross-generational. Something that is
+unique to millenials and below is that we seek validation for the way
+that we feel using social media. A millenial is not sure how they
+feel until they send a text or make a broadcast (this makes them
+awfully dependent on others). Older generations feel something, and
+*then* seek out social interaction (presumably to share, but not in
+the social media sense of 'share').
+What does Turkle think we can do about all this? She had one positive
+suggestion and one negative suggestion. In response to student or
+colleague e-mails asking for something that ought to be discussed
+face-to-face, reply "I'm thinking." And you'll find they come to you.
+She doesn't want anyone to write "empathy apps" in response to her
+findings. For once, more tech is definitely not the answer.
+Turkle also made reference to the study reported