I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, written by Sherry Turkle, widely acclaimed MIT professor and licensed clinical psychologist.
The book is the fourth in a series about evolving digital culture and is split into chapters regarding the role of technology in friendship, relationships, the workplace and education.
All the chapters came together in these overarching ideas: 1) how an individual handles their physical device 2) how an individual carries themselves in a virtual world and finally 3) how the individual applies what they find online to the real world.
1. Handling the physical device
I appreciated Trukle’s insight that even a face down phone has tremendous power. It may seem that technology is only harmful when someone is deeply addicted, drawn into a virtual reality, but this doesn’t always hold true. It is much easier to approach a new person when their device is not in sight. A phone face down next to someone new means an increased chance that once a conversation is going, they will eventually look down. While many might not think twice about leaving their phones out during a casual conversation, it is essential to realize the person they speak to (whether it is their best friend or the President), will feel more valued and respected when they put devices away.
While it is frustrating when my teachers or parents take away a phone during an important lecture or family vacation, respectively, I realize how it is beneficial. I may complain and please that I will not be glued to my screen, but having my phone automatically means I can see the new notifications pop up and I can feel the vibrations of new messages. Trukle discusses how phones and apps are designed to keep us interested in them; thus the best way to fight temptation is to put our devices away.
Interestingly, I realized, even with zero notifications/messages, I pick up my phone and fiddle with it to pass the idle, awkward moments; I turn it on and off aimlessly and (you can ask any teen to verify!) text uselessly just to “look busy.” Without my device, I would be forced to make eye contact with someone sitting near me and be much more observant of my surroundings.
Now be sure to answer the survey and share your new technology goal on social media (especially if it is about using social media)! Encourage your friends/followers to set their own goals!
2. The Virtual World
Trukle discusses how we often want to portray our best selves - amazing vacations, fun parties and proud moments - on social media. Then, we look for acceptance through more likes, more followers, more positive comments and more shared opinions. Trukle goes as far as to suggest we avoid controversial topics, especially when we may support the less popular side, since we only want to associate positive thoughts - a getaway from real world stress - to our online worlds. While there are certainly exceptions, she cites an observable trend, making her case extremely compelling.
Communication also becomes unusually easier when we hide behind a screen. Children lose empathy and find it easier to be hurtful when they don’t have to see a physical reaction to their actions. Similarly, it is easier to provide a seemingly heartfelt apology over text. Trukle cites the trend of numerous families taking their disagreements to a text conversation to control emotions, to allow messages to be edited, to ensure nothing is misspoken in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, communication and basic human skills are compromised in choosing this quick fix.
3. Integrating Online Experiences into the Real World
What sets Trukle’s book apart from the many, many lectures I (along with my millennial peers) hear was moving past describing the irresistible draw of technology. Instead, she questions the popular belief that we can simultaneously manage both the real world and the virtual one on our phones, slipping between them as we please.
I fiddle with my phone and get distracted for a few seconds during casual conversations. I hear with my ears, so why should it matter where my eyes and hands go? Yet, I came to realize the importance of eye contact to developing better relationships. Trukle specifically details how a parent turning to their phone means they turn away from their children; this creates a vicious cycle that teaches children it is acceptable to prioritize their device over the people around them.
Technology also causes shorter attention spans since we want everything fed to us in exciting bits and pieces, just as they are on social media. With limits on word counts and video lengths, Twitter and Instagram always keeps things brief. Unfortunately, in real life we need to accommodate longer conversations and initiate small talk, even with people we may not like. Focusing deeply on one thing, “unitasking” as Trukle coins it, brings a plethora of benefits to our focus and ensures the best possible job is done.
As a millennial brought up in a generation filled with technology, I have heard/read/seen enough warnings and been given plenty of unsolicited advice, but this book resonated with me. Maybe it was because of the strong, unwavering tone that Turkle adopts. Maybe it was the pages full of detailed studies and sources she cites. But maybe, just maybe it was the personal encounters she recounted that struck too close to home, too close for comfort. Reading this book, urged me to truly “reclaim conversation” once again.