Sherry Turkle and the pharmacology of phones

family distracted by technologySherry Turkle’s recent piece in The New York Times, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” appears to take on the key points of her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation (also reviewed in NYT.) Turkle reports on a decline in empathy, particularly among younger people, which she asserts is a result of emerging technologies–social media and especially smartphones. While she cites some research in support of this claim (research which itself only suggests there might be a connection between technology and decreased empathy), Turkle also says “In our hearts, we know this, and now research is catching up with our intuitions.” An interesting rhetorical appeal since so often research demonstrates counter-intuitive discoveries.

But here’s a more interesting line from Turkle: “Our phones are not accessories, but psychologically potent devices that change not just what we do but who we are.” Indeed, though the distinction between doing and being is not so easily made or maintained. The point though is that we are changing. We’ve always been changing, though maybe now we are in a period of more rapid change. She writes that “Every technology asks us to confront human values. This is a good thing, because it causes us to reaffirm what they are.” And I wonder at the choice of “reaffirm.” Why re-affirm? Because human values are never changing? Why not discover or construct?

The loss of empathy and general human connection Turkle describes are moving, and the everyday stories of families sitting around the dining room table separated by screens are familiar. At the same time, you’d almost think we’d left behind some idyllic society of close families, friendships, and self-reflection.  That is, you might think that if you weren’t able to remember the 1990s. If this argument is going to be floated on what we know in our hearts, then what I know is that growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was hardly surrounded by “empathy.” Not familial and certainly not from peers. Turkle relates a story of a teen lamenting about her dad googling some fact at the dinner table (I can be guilty of that.) When I was a kid, instead of googling we were reaching for the World Book (that’s like an old-fashioned print version of Wikipedia kids).  As a teenager, when I was home I spent my evenings in my room listening to music and/or reading. My teens also tend to sit in their rooms, though they’re mostly watching videos or playing video games (or reading). I’m not sure how much of a difference that is. However, I don’t think I would base an argument on “heart knowledge.” I’m sure other teens today spend a lot of time on social media and texting. Just not my kids or their friends… I wonder who’s more empathetic? The teen who is really interested in what her friends are doing, thinking, or feeling? Or the one sitting silently in a room reading her book?

Turkle certainly wants to argue for the latter, which is perhaps not what we would “know in our hearts,” because for her, empathy begins with solitude.

One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.

But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.

An argument near and dear to every painfully introverted academic you’ve ever met. And of course we all know there’s no better place to find empathy than in a professor’s office hours!

Meanwhile I’m especially interested in this one sentence: “Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion.” I am reminded of Plato’s concerns for the pharmacological effects of writing, which was perhaps the first “psychologically potent device,” unless one wants to count language itself (which I would). What is the “illusion” that we are pursuing here? Turkle doesn’t say, but there are certainly commonplace answers. An illusion that we are “connecting” with others via social media, that we are “getting things done” when we are multi-tasking, and perhaps even that we are really “thinking” with so many screens and distractions.

To channel Plato (and Derrida), we might say that our smartphones and digital media are a pharmakon for thought.

However, here are my confessions on these matters. At this moment I am at my computer with several screens open and my phone on the desk. But I don’t have Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media apps set to alert me. (I did get an update on my phone on the team selection for England’s national soccer team from ESPN.) I might check those sites a couple times a day and scroll through the updates. On occasion I get a little more involved in some conversational thread. My point is that maybe I’m already living the life Turkle recommends. In terms of my scholarly work, I spend a lot of time alone.

Despite all her concerns about the psychological effects of these devices, in the end Turkle seeks a technological solution in the redesign of smartphones. She asks:

What if our phones were not designed to keep us attached, but to do a task and then release us? What if the communications industry began to measure the success of devices not by how much time consumers spend on them but by whether it is time well spent?

In his review, Franzen is skeptical of such hopes as they seem to run counter to economic imperatives. I suppose I would say that all media technologies operate this way. They all have pharmacological effects. One can become addicted to books or tv or video games or the Internet or a smartphone. So while I can certainly share in Turkle’s general call that we reflect on our use of technology (one could say I’ve made a career of that), I would end where I started with suggesting that our task is not to “reaffirm” human values but to invent or discover them as emergent from our participation in a media ecology.

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