THR Web Features   /   October 5, 2015

The Talking Cure

Sherry Turkle, 2009. Jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr.

This week, Sherry Turkle will publish Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. It develops themes that she began to explore in her astute and disturbing Alone Together (see the conversation with Turkle in THR about Alone Together here). An essay adapted from her new book that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday provides a nice summary of some of her critical observations on the personal and social impact of how we use our devices and her recommendations for how we might reclaim conversation, a “talking cure” for the “failing connections of our digital world.”

This is her central point:

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

She argues, not unreasonably, that smartphones, and connectivity more generally, disrupt such “emphatic conversation” because we can’t be fully present to someone while we’re attending to something else; thus phones diminish our ability to know and understand each other and undercut the quality of the conversations we do have. These conversations must necessarily be kept “relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.”

On an even more basic level, she believes that our connectivity diminishes our ability to “converse” with ourselves, because the “capacity for solitude” is also undercut by picking up the phone and checking our email. For Turkle, self-reflection in solitude is how “we find ourselves” and gain the capacity to “really hear what other people have to say.” While she observes that conversation with others “leads us to become better at inner dialogue,” her emphasis is on the importance of slowing down and reclaiming solitude as a “start toward reclaiming conversation.”

Turkle notes that we have turned “time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology,” and she briefly cites the research of University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his colleagues, who did a series of studies on how people experience solitude. In a paper, published last year in the journal Science they

found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.

However, Wilson et al. do not argue that we have turned time alone into a problem or that technologies are themselves making solitude more difficult. In addition to their studies with college students, they did another with community participants, ages eighteen to seventy-seven (the median age was forty-eight), recruited at a farmers’ market and a local church. They report that

the results were similar to those found with college students. There was no evidence that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to participants’ age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.

Their claim is that solitude is inherently difficult. This point does not contradict Turkle’s but it does suggest that our devices are hazardous because they discourage us from doing something—inner dialogue—that’s already challenging. Our efforts to “reclaim solitude” will involve an element of asceticism.

Further, if “the untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” as Wilson and colleagues argue, then perhaps a better starting point for energizing what Turkle calls the “virtuous circle that links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection,” is with conversation rather than solitude. That is, perhaps at the individual level the joys of friendship can be more easily acknowledged and cultivated than those of the inner life, better motivating us toward a more judicious use of our devices and an increased capacity to “listen to ourselves.”

Joseph E. Davis is publisher of the Hedgehog Review.