On Friday, October 16th, MIT Professor and media scholar Sherry Turkle visited the Brattle Theatre to give a speech on her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. The talk sold out the 235 seat theatre quickly, with an audience of mostly 25-and-ups.
Turkle spoke about the aspects of her book that focused on adolescents, and how technology is affecting the way they relate to one another. She described three stories stories about the decline in students attending office hours, how difficult it is becoming for adolescents to sit through the lulls and awkward silences that happen in every interaction, and how technology is affecting young children’s ability to use empathy.
She told her first story about a student who responded when she asked why no one came to office hours anymore: they would prefer to send a single email that perfectly asks their question and receive a perfect answer back. To this, she told us: “I am not here because I ever sent a perfect email and received a perfect response back. I am here because someone sat down and said ‘I’m going to stick with you.’ […] That is what our students are depriving themselves of when they don’t engage in conversation.”
Next, she talked about students who told her how they viewed the rules of conversation. Mentioning a conversation she had with one girl: “it takes seven minutes of a conversation, says this young woman, to know if anything interesting is going to happen in that conversation.” And most students, even the one who said it, don’t normally allow themselves those seven minutes. It is hard for those of us who are so used to instant gratification to sit through the “boring bits” and the lulls. Another student describes the ‘Rule of Three’ in which, when sitting with a group of friends at a table, three people’s heads must be up and engaged in the discussion before you can allow yourself to look down at your phone.
Her last story focused on an elementary school that asked for her help when it’s students started displaying fewer signs of empathy. These children did were not making friends — they were making acquaintances. “Twelve-year-olds are playing on the playground the way eight-year-olds should play,” says Turkle. “They are not able to put themselves in each other’s shoes.” She then went on to describe the effects of taking away technology for a few days at a summer camp, how campers showed a marked increase in all indicators of empathy.
Turkle spent the rest of her speech discussing the dangers of the promise of perfection and the idea that it’s a bad thing to be bored, the way skype makes it impossible to make eye-contact with the person on the other side of the screen, how easy it’s become to apologize when it should be very difficult to do, and how different the speech would be had she done it as a webinar. Turkle closed her speech by offering the following advice: “Look up. Look at each other. We have nothing to invent; we have the technology. Look up, and start the conversation.”