Reclaiming Conversation

By on June 29th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles

The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. By Sherry Turkle, Pengiun, 2015.

Writing in 1930, the German cultural critic and essayist, Walter Benjamin, tells about his Berlin childhood, circa 1900. The telephone was then a newcomer to his household and he remarks, “Not many of those who use the apparatus (now) know what devastation it once wreaked in family circles.” A school friend might call him between 2 and 4 in the afternoon causing “an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped this siesta.” He continues, “(the telephone’s) ringing served to multiply the terrors of the Berlin household.” Rushing for the phone he is “… inexorably delivered over to the voice that now sounded … it obliterated my consciousness of time, my firm resolve, my sense of duty” [1]. Such was the power of the medium that any proposal from a friend on the other end of the line would be accepted.

We need to be reminded of how disruptive this invention was — the first to bring, uninvited, a disembodied voice into a home. One should keep some historical perspective in mind as we read a diatribe notably lacking in historical grounding, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. This is an important and provocative book that effectively describes some major concerns of our era. Her target is electronic communications media that emerged in our time – most notably the smartphone and handheld mobile devices like the iPad. Lest you think that the telephone’s ability to shape history and civilization are nothing compared to our newest gadgetry, consider that a number of historians, e.g., Stephen Kern in his Culture of Time and Space, have implicated the telephone and telegraph in the July crisis of 1914 — the misadventure leading to World War I. Kern maintains that diplomats of the era were overwhelmed by the speed and volume of electrical communication — they were unable to reflect and act with the prudence the situation demanded; war was the result.

I know of no book of the last century and a half that criticizes the telephone with the same passion and confidence that Sherry Turkle brings to bear on the mobile devices of our era. Dr. Turkle is a Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at M.I.T. Her Ph.D. is in psychology and social relations, and she approaches her subject as a psychologist steeped in the psychoanalytic tradition. She believes in the power of conversation: “conversation cures.” Here are some of her findings based on conversations with over 300 teens and young adults, corporate CEO’s, parents, as well as her readings in peer reviewed journals:

  • Children and young people spend so much time texting each other that they don’t develop a capacity for face to face talk and the decline in such talk leads to a failure to develop a capacity for empathy.
  • Parents feel cut off from their children because the kids are so caught up in using their mobile devices.
  • The uninterrupted family dinner is vanishing because both adults and children are constantly distracted by their devices.
  • Parents feel guilty; they believe that they are not giving their children full attention because they are so distracted by their own devices, e.g., a young father giving his kid a bath checks his phone for messages. Children beg their parents to put away their devices and provide communication.
  • A recent college graduate reports to Turkle, who apparently agrees, that thanks to mobile devices “conversation died in 2009.”
  • Even in a small class she teaches at M.I. T., where students discuss painful family matters, a large fraction of her students were distracted by their mobile devices — suggesting a lack of empathy for their classmates.
  • College classes taught online lack the spontaneity and passion of the live classroom. Something major is being lost from education.
  • At company meetings, people are so distracted by their devices that no one is really paying attention to anything. Employees working at home and participating in conference phone calls, or Skype, are looking at other screens at the same time; conference calls are ineffective and lead to stress. Employers recognizing this are trying to limit their workers’ privilege to work at home.
  • Romantic relationships are undone by texting; people are much crueler than in live conversation because they don’t receive the visual cues that accompany live talk.
  • We are facing a situation as serious as that described by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring which documented the destruction of nature – most especially bird life – by the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides. Now the assault is on the human capacity for empathy.

This is quite a damning list. But, one might put together a litany indicting the classical telephone: How do you like being interrupted at dinner or while making love? How do you like it when your boss phones you just before you fall asleep?

Or how do you like an invention that reliably kills over 33 000 Americans a year and has consistently killed that many, or more, for nearly three generations? I’m speaking here of the automobile. There is no book currently in print condemning the automobile and the telephone with the same passion that Turkle brings to mobile devices. The reason is the slow adoption of these technologies: they crept up on us. Although Bell introduced his telephone in 1876, by the eve of World War II a majority of American homes were still not connected. And although the Model T Ford — the first truly affordable car — emerged in 1908, by 1940 slightly over 40% of American families still did not own an auto [2].

The iPhone, by contrast, appeared in 2007, just 8 years before Turkle’s publication. A survey made in 2015 by the Pew Research Center showed that 68 percent of American adults have smartphones. Some of the remaining 32% probably have tablets that give them connectivity. Only television rivals the mobile device in its speed of adoption by the American people.

Because the telephone made its way slowly into the American home, its power to disrupt was less apparent. Moreover, during its almost imperceptible adoption, society created a set of customs for its use: times of day when you should or should not call someone, the kinds of subjects appropriate for phone conversation (more about this below), a concern about using a telephone from a friend’s house where you might run up a large bill, the protocol to use when a friend is visiting and someone phones you — do you neglect the first person and talk to the second? This was not as simple as it now seems – long distance calls were expensive. Starting in the early 20th century, etiquette books had chapters on how to use this relatively new invention. As for the automobile, because of its slow adoption and obvious advantages, we were numbed to its increasing death toll. And yet, for a century, measures have gradually made cars and roads safer.

In the fullness of time we are developing rules and customs to deal with mobile devices. Professors frequently insist that these instruments be turned off in lecture. A teaching assistant is sometimes delegated to police this. Turkle speaks of the recently developed “rule of threes.” If three people are engaged in a conversation, then one of the three may without shame check her mobile device. Etiquette is evolving.

Turkle’s book contains numerous anecdotes in support of her thesis that conversation is declining. My own amateur field work took me to a number of restaurants, at lunch time, near Turkle’s M.I.T. I left puzzled. If conversation is dying, then why was there so much of it? Indeed, conversation was so abundant and noisy that I found it hard to speak with my table mates. And yes, I did see some phones on the table and diners pick one up and talk quickly, after making a brief apology. “Sorry, but I have to take this call.” Is this so terrible?

Conversation has its own history, dating well before the debate engendered by the mobile device. Dinner time conversation, for which Turkle displays an overt nostalgia, was threatened in the last century as televisions became so cheap that one could be assigned to dining areas. Families frequently watched the evening news and one wonders what effect it had on children as they tucked into their hamburgers while they watched some poor devil of a soldier who had just had his leg blown off. What kind of insensitivity and detachment might this have required and what does this say of the American evening meal?1

Historians and essayists have discussed the art of conversation — and in many cases its decline — for centuries. A recent excellent contribution is Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller. Published in 2006, before the iPhone era, you can find here, for example, both Charles Dickens and Mrs. Trollope, complaining in the 19th century, of Americans’ failures as conversationalists vis-à-vis speakers back home in England. Miller discusses conversation in 20th century America and observes that Hemingway and Norman Mailer privileged the closed mouthed reticent male as a symbol of masculinity. While Turkle is concerned with what she perceives as the decline of conversation, it is surprising that she lets pass this remark from a college junior, (school not named), “If me and my boyfriend fight, and we are talking and he stops to text someone back, even if it is for two seconds, I’m like,’What are you doing…1 freak out.” There is a larger concern here that has nothing to do with texting: English grammar that might have a college teacher “freak out.”

Turkle’s major concern is what she perceives as a decline in empathy brought on by mobile devices causing a shrinking of face to face conversation. She refers to various papers in scholarly journals read by psychologists and sociologists. One in particular she cites several times, and it is worth reading in part because it explains to a layman, like me, how empathy is said to be gauged [3].

The paper describes an experiment in which 51 children who are 11 or 12 years of age are sent for five days to an overnight nature camp where television, computers, and mobile devices were not permitted. At the start of camp, the kids’ capacity for empathy is evaluated: they were shown photographs and videotaped scenes. There is no accompanying sound. The students were asked on the basis of what they saw to evaluate the emotions of their subjects. The children took a similar test at the end of the camping period. It was found that their ability to visually read emotions had improved. At the same time, a control group was used — a group of children of the same age who remained at their public school and continued with their devices. They took the same tests over the same interval and, strange to say, their scores improved too but not by as much. The ratio was about two to one. The authors are quite open about the defects of their experiment: if you send a bunch of kids of this age to a nature camp for 5 days it can be a wrenching experience and the absence of their devices might be the least of their adjustments. For some, it may their first time away from home or their first away from a city or their first living with a group. Turkle never alludes to the shaky science of this experiment.

The question of whether empathy can be measured remains I think an open one. During the period in which Americans have been using smartphones it appears — from studying the public sector — that empathy may have increased. We have seen a growing compassion for lesbians and gays made evident in legislation, and court decisions resulting in increased gay rights. There is also a growing empathy for animals. Meat consumption is falling in the U.S. and there is increasing concern about the treatment of farm animals. Of course there are contrary trends in American life — a growing selfishness that has surfaced in the 2016 presidential race.

Turkle’s own capacity for empathy is sometimes thrown into question. She describes young people who say that if a friend of theirs were to lose a parent or loved one then they would express condolence with an email or text message. Turkle is distressed because they won’t use a real telephone. She seems not to know that for a century books on etiquette dissuade one from telephoning. Condolence requires a written message, not a potentially jarring phone call. You don’t know what your friend might be doing in this period of grief. The occasion calls for written words on paper — carefully chosen. Of course a message on a screen doesn’t have the same gravitas as a handwritten note, but it is closer to the written message than telephoning.

She is similarly distressed that certain students don’t want to talk to her during office hours but would rather use email, perhaps forgetting that some young people are quite intimidated by being alone with their professor in her office. Students should learn to use office hours, and email can become a way to persuade them to overcome their reluctance.

We are in the early days of devices and connectivity, and the changes are so rapid that already parts of Turkle’s book seem dated — her jeremiad about online teaching for example. In 2013 Clayton Christiansen of the Harvard Business School, speaking of massive open online courses (MOOC’s) and their capacity for disruption, predicted about American colleges, “I think even five years from now these enterprises (colleges) are going to be in real trouble.” Three years later the statement looks quaint. It seems that almost once a month The Chronicle of Higher Education carries a story about some big, distance learning course having crashed and burned [4]. And we see that there is still no shortage of high school students struggling to get into the better colleges. Turkle’s plea for the importance of face to face learning is dated — we know this stuff.

And yet distance learning has its place and we’re figuring out what place that is. As a college freshman I struggled to understand the Riemann integral in my calculus class. If the lecture had been recorded I could have watched it over and over until it penetrated. Best of all. I might have watched it a few times before class so as to bring in some smart and probably dumb questions. This practice is now widely done and is known as the “flipped classroom.” It is most popular and effective in science courses where it can be difficult to assimilate an idea presented just once in a lecture hall. There is no suggestion in Turkle’s book that recorded lectures might have a different place in the sciences from what they do in the humanities. As for the importance of live interaction — and the brief conversations with the professor right after class — this is old news.

Turkle has written an important book, albeit not a Silent Spring. Future historians of science and technology will see it as a product of the period when mobile devices began to play a very large role in American life. It is an eloquent, compact record of what concerned us.


A. David Wunsch is Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is Book Review editor of this magazine. His email address is