#PLA2016: Sherry Turkle and the Power of Conversation

Turkle notes  pla 2016

This morning at PLA, I heard Sherry Turkle speak on her current research into conversation, a continuation of her work on exploring what happens to people mediated by, through and with technology.  It was a useful talk – lots of stuff worth remembering in there.  

I was struck by her emphasis on empathy and intimacy, and I share her concern about people building robots to replace people without considering what’s getting replaced1 . Technology isn’t a replacement for empathy, intimacy, or conversation, she says, and I agree. 

Some hurried thoughts on the talk, written in between morning sessions, are below.

Writing Is Conversation, Too

At the beginning of her talk, Turkle setup a dichotomy of email versus face to face conversation. She used an example of office hours where students come to visit versus her students’ preference to write, and receive, “perfect emails.” I didn’t care for the example, though I understood what she was trying to say – that the edited and perfect life is a preference for many, that anything but our best polished self isn’t worth sharing or communicating. It felt like she was dissing writing.

The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.

There’s a reason to pause while constructing a thought, either as a sentence or as a spoken statement – and the delivery of one’s self, in intimate and empathy building ways, is just as valid when done via a letter, a postcard, an email, a text, or whatever instead of a face to face conversation. Intimacy and empathy can certainly be fostered via written exchanges.

The need for people to be people with each other isn’t about the modality of our interaction – it’s about the intentionality we put into it. And, of course she knows and believes this, otherwise she wouldn’t write books – the only way to spread her message would be face to face, a return to a pre-literate culture. And I don’t think that’s consistent with her messages, essential messages, at all.

I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.  Email isn’t evil – but it can be used to send plenty of evil. Texts aren’t the devil – but the devil sure knows how to text. You get the idea. And can extend the idea to any place where writing can be shared among people. The platforms aren’t necessary the problem – it’s what we do – and don’t do – with them that matters2

One point I’ve missed mentioning is the notion of the edited life versus the messy life. The messy bits, she argued, are where learning and love and intimacy and empathy happen. She’s right about that – but I’d push to say that plenty of the messy can and does happen not face to face but via writing and other ways of communicating. I hope she allows for that in her thinking, and that we will allow for that in the learning experiences and spaces we create for ourselves and others. I’ve often referred to this space as “first draft thinking.” I want folks to share their early drafts often, and I think this is one reason why. There’s power in the rawness of the early thinking. We learn from the pushback that happens after we start saying things.

Technology Isn’t The Problem with Attention and Empathy – Mindlessness Is

A recurring theme of Turkle’s talk was that phones and folks’ use of them were somehow causing the problem of loss of empathy.  That’s not quite right. It’s the mindlessness of phone and technology use that causes the loss of our personness. We need to not respond mindlessly to that – but to be intentional about how we engage with technology. So don’t blame the phone, and don’t ban the phone. (A common school reaction.) Instead, work to build ways to help people manage their technology, and to pause and allow time for reflection about how, when and where to use it. 

If you’ve a quiet area that’s intended for reflection, perhaps a shoebox on the table for temporary device storage is a good idea. A local fast food restaurant makes quarantine boxes available for devices at their restaurant. I think they call them “family time” boxes, intended for device storage during the meal. That’s a killer idea, one that I will implement at my house for dinner time soon.

We Have To Be Intentional About What We Want to Be/Make/Experience

It’s not enough to be less mindless – we have to be more mindful. 

A bigger theme of her talk is that we have to be mindful and intentional about what we want our worlds to look like, and how we want to be in them. There’s a place for solitude, she argued, in helping us to figure that out. We have to know ourselves in order to be able to share those selves with others. Yep. She says the best line in her book is: “Technology can make us forget what we know about life.” And I mostly agree – but I’d push a bit and say that one of the big problems with the way that we interact with each other is that we don’t take time to consider what we actually DO know about life, or what we want to know more about. 

And we certainly, at least in formal learning situations, are far too quick to decide for others what they know about life, and what that means for them. We’ve got to look after each other better. 

After hearing this talk, I’m certainly off to get a copy of her latest book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve gotten into it already. Tell me about it in the comments. 

  1. I also wonder if the replacement, if it’s “good enough,” can actually lead to more empathy and intimacy for people – but that’s a different blog post. Likely about Turing tests. []
  2. That’s not to say that the way we build these platforms isn’t important, too, but again, that’s a different post. []

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