Saving the lost art of conversation in the age of the smartphone
Megan Garber of The Atlantic interviews (alternate link) Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and a professor at MIT whose primary academic interestâ€”the relationship between humans and machinesâ€”is especially relevant in todayâ€™s networked age.
Turkle’s most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, “explores our reliance on devices that can isolate us under the auspices of connection. Published in 2011, it poured 384 pagesâ€™ worth of water onto technological optimism at a time when most of the culture preferred to focus on the promise and allure of digital devices.”
Turkle, writes Garber, is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as â€œa partisan of conversation.â€ Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as â€œethnography,â€ that in journalism is known as â€œreporting,â€ and that everywhere else is known as â€œpaying attention.â€
“The conclusion sheâ€™s arrived at while researching her new book is not, technically, that weâ€™re not talking to each other. Weâ€™re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than itâ€™s ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. Weâ€™re talking at each other rather than with each other.
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messyâ€”full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the timeâ€”and, just as important, the permissionâ€”to think and react and glean insights. â€œYou canâ€™t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,â€ Turkle says. â€œItâ€™s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden thereâ€™s something, and whoa.â€
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, â€œthe boring bits.â€ In software terms, theyâ€™re features rather than bugs.”