Student Perspectives: Thomas Pink on Professor Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming the Conversation in a Digital Age at Kings College

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student Thomas Pink
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Professor Sherry Turkle talking about Reclaiming Conversations at King's College London

Professor Sherry Turkle talking about Reclaiming Conversations at King’s College London

On Monday 16th May, Professor Sherry Turkle gave a lecture at King’s College London on some of the themes from her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation. I should note, I haven’t read Reclaiming Conversation, so these thoughts are based purely on Turkle’s talk and other commentators work.

The conversation is over. Spontaneous, open-ended, tangential interactions are finished. No longer do people meet-up for a chat but instead text, instant message, and e-mail one another. The age of convenient technological communication is upon us, and it is sounding the death knell for verbal engagement.

Forgive the hyperbole. This is a slightly exaggerated picture of that painted by Professor Sherry Turkle, who discussed ideas from her new book Reclaiming Conversation. The message repeated by Turkle was that we need to think meaningfully about ways in which technology can be used and framed in order to ensure empathy and retain humanity. Although no hard-and-fast answers to this were offered, some of the issues we currently face were.

The edited self

This idea refers to the manner in which digital communication technologies allow us to edit our writing, thoughts, responses, selves, in a way in which the immediacy of face-to-face, localised conversation does not. We can present our ‘best’ self at every interaction.

I wonder though if this has not always been so; the self we present at the job interview, the self we present to distant relatives, the self we present to our friends.

Turkle proposed that digital technology has progressed to the detriment of human-human interaction and conversation. The way in which humans engage with computers has changed fundamentally. No longer do we physically go to the computer, log-on to the Internet, “identity workshop”, log-off and leave this behind to carry out our “real” lives. We are now perpetually connected.

This “always-on, always-on-you” state of being has stunted our human propensity for engagement and dialogue as we can be constantly distracted by our devices. People are finding ways around a certain type of conversation by reverting to their screens. This may certainly be true, but there was no mention of how these migrated conversations are taking place online and what effects they are having.

“Real” authenticity

When we use our devices for communication, we turn a potential relationship into a transaction. We substitute a connection for conversation. Turkle suggested that in this way phones, in particular, allow people to avoid boredom or anxiety because of their ‘always-on, always-on-you’ status. They inhibit our ability to experience the ‘real’.

This is close to Floridi’s description of a kind of techno-sceptic ideology that sees interaction with technology as, “a deleterious kind of detachment and a loss of pristine contact with the natural and authentic.” (2016, pp. 39).

This fetishizing of ‘real’ experiences was a theme throughout. Turkle lamented our devices’ “assault on empathy” and described instances of ‘digital detoxes’ having positive effects on young children.

This extended to the language that Turkle used; “crazy”, “Internet-y person”, “Internet mania”, it stands to present people that are engaged with technology as ‘other’, as unwell, as in need of curing. It came as no surprise that Turkle continued in this vein, invoking the ‘Talking Cure’ in a way that suggested the healing and restorative powers of conversation alone. Renounce your screens and be healed!

Face-to-face

Turkle said that face-to-face conversations are the single most human/humanising act we can engage in. Although there was acknowledgement of video-call services like FaceTime and Skype being able to facilitate this type of interaction, Turkle still advocated for geographically proximate conversations.

I felt that there was some unnecessary moralising or alarmism, especially when in a literally ‘won’t somebody think of the children!’ moment, Turkle spoke about the damaging effects texting mothers can have on their young kids. I also felt that young people were unfairly castigated. Turkle was keen to stress that this was an issue across all generations, but the examples she gave seemed to always portray 20-something students.

I don’t totally agree with Turkle, in fact I disagree with a lot of her ideas, but I do agree that we need to be more aware of how we use our devices, and what we lose when we use them as well as what we gain.

References

Floridi, L. (2016) The 4th Revolution. OUP: Oxford.

 

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Thomas Pink is on Twitter @pinkthom.

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Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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