THR Web Features   /   October 13, 2015

Reclaiming Connections

David Peterson

Woman texting in coffee shop. The JH Photography via Flickr.

Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation, explores the damaging effect that our dependence on technology is having on face-to-face interactions. Joe Davis, the publisher of the Hedgehog Review, also recently wrote a piece on this same topic (you can read his insights here). As a “plugged-in” (or perpetually distracted) college kid, I found many of Turkle's conclusions of special interest. Turkle reports a “40 percent decline in empathy among college students.” She links this decline to a growing fear of solitude. According to Turkle, my peers and I simply can’t stand sitting alone with our thoughts, and it’s hurting our capacity for intimacy.

Jonathan Franzen, back in the spotlight surrounding the release of his new novel Purity, has also taken note of Turkle’s findings. In his 2002 essay collection How To Be Alone, he wrote, “Technological consumerism is an infernal machine.”  Franzen echoes that line in his recent review of Turkle’s book, writing, “Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.” Franzen has long embraced this extreme position as a technology naysayer. Here, he notes the negative impact of market pressures on our obsession with screens. We’ve already seen colleges shift their allotment of financial resources based on the trendy consumerism of their students, building up cafeterias and athletic facilities. Now, Turkle suggests, the entitlement to comfort and satisfaction has seeped into the gadgets we carry around, and is having a negative effect on how we treat each other. Texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and group-messaging apps compete for the time and emotional capital of students, at the expense of focused study and even basic conversational skills.

Most of the Hedgehog Review readership may feel that Turkle is addressing only college students. “But no, no, no,” say Turkle and Franzen: These are still areas of concern for everyone, especially in situations where we are struggling to listen attentively and to build the necessary foundations for interpersonal connection. For example, the failure of family conversation at mealtimes looks like this, according to Turkle:

Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.

Reclaiming conversations starts in our most mundane daily interactions. Back home, my family has outlawed phones at the table. An edict that I grudgingly accept, despite my eagerness to be excused as quickly as possible so I can rush to check my phone when the meal is over. I rarely eat free of distraction here at college. The amount of time that I have free access to my phone during the day is completely unregulated. I wake up to a routine seven minutes of scrolling on newsfeeds and checking Snapchat updates. I can leave my phone out on my desk during class. I am told not to have it out at the restaurant where I work, but I see my managers checking theirs manically and I often follow suit. I send frantic texts to make sure I am in on dinner plans with my friends. But once I’m at dinner, I’ll be checking my phone constantly to chart my next moves. I dread an awkward encounter on the sidewalk with a pseudo-friend, so I bury my nose in an inconsequential email or put headphones on and trudge on earnestly.

Back in kindergarten during recess, I would often cover my eyes and feign blindness so other kids couldn’t see me playing alone by myself. The gap between my connectivity via gadgets and the connection I feel to the people in my life, my online friends and texting buddies, stinks of my five-year-old self’s willful delusion. I think I’ve found the antidote to my fears and anxieties surrounding loneliness: my gadgets. But in the reality that’s not virtual, I am as alone as ever in my failure to sit quietly with my thoughts or to truly open up and experience things around me more deeply.