Conversation is not unlike a muscle: left unused, it can wither. Parents and teachers who help their charges exercise this muscle see the process close-up. In a supportive environment, they question what has just been said, gently encouraging the re-thinking and refinement of spoken thoughts. After all, which of us knows exactly what we think until we have uttered it? Eye-to-eye, it’s the dialectic that helps us grow towards adulthood and citizenship.
As the premise of Sherry Turkle’s excellent Reclaiming Conversation is that the presence of our communication devices hampers our conversation, let me spike some guns that prejudge me as having Luddite tendencies. Right or wrong, I’ve been an early adopter of a whole slew of technology, starting way back with a PC that ran Windows 1.3 with a 20Mb hard disk! I’ve been a sucker for it all - and still am. As T.S. Eliot had it, “Ridiculous the sad, waste time”. I therefore wanted to read her book to see if I too might have fallen under the spell of the tech we have around us. If I were to be judgemental, I’d be starting with myself. Had I too been engaged in a sort of flight from conversation?
Turkle’s astute and warm-hearted perspective is that of someone of my generation (more or less) who was born before personal computers and mobiles were available. Her interest, instead, is in so-called Millennials and Gen Z-ers who grew up surrounded by tech, and what impact this may have had upon them. It’s a modern day version of the Platonic world’s lament for the loss of the Socratic world’s exclusively oral culture as writing appeared on the scene. What, if anything, gets shouldered out as new technology comes along? Quite a lot, it appears, as this MIT sociologist and clinical psychologist sets out in this 2015 book.
Professor Turkle is an observer. Her presence within social groups a quarter of her age is as if she is embedded, and one has the impression that the rapport she establishes to accomplish this must have great warmth. She is unmistakeably on the side of her research subjects, most of whom are undergraduate students and college students in the US. CEOs in business and those whom they employ also come under her illuminating gaze, so her perspective isn’t narrow, and we learn much from it.
What the author observed
Here then are some of this book’s takeaways to consider:
- A quarter of US teenagers connect within five minutes of waking (2013 data) and, on average, send 100 texts a day (2012 data).
- Multi-tasking (from app to app or from screen to screen or from screen to person) degrades performance. Only 1 or 2 percent of the population are good multitaskers. For the rest of the population, each new task degrades performance. The more one multitasks, the worse one gets at it (2014 data). Multitasking is apparently the norm in US classrooms, so much so that nine in every ten college student self-reports as texting in class (2013 data).
- Family dinners without the ever-present phone protect from delinquency and drug addiction, and predict academic success (2008 data).
- When we are alone with our thoughts, not reacting to external stimuli, we engage a part of the brain that’s devoted to building a stable sense of our autobiographical past. Children growing up digital have always had something external to respond to. When they go online, their minds are not wandering, but rather are captured and divided (2008 data).
- There’s a positive correlation between privacy (including that from interruptions from devices) and productivity. This is seen in highly performing organizations that value personal space. Programmers working in these environments are more productive and performed better than those who had less freedom from interruption. Increase privacy at work and creativity appears to increase. It ties in with observations about the ergonomics of the office: on average, workers in some environments can be distracted every 3 minutes, yet studies show that it takes an average 23 minutes to get back on track after such interruptions (2012 data).
Some disambiguation first: this isn’t about how emails, texts and WhatsApp messages have replaced phone calls. This is about how all digital communications have replaced face-to-face conversation, for which the shorthand term is social displacement.
Much light is shed on the difference between transactional conversations and ones which build and cement friendships and relationships at work. We are shown teenagers and young adults being fluent with apps and devices in each other’s company, yet anxious about face-to-face meetings which are device free. When they’re out and about, they are hypervigilant with their phones, monitoring what all their contacts are doing; yet when they are together, they are apart, each concentrating on their smartphone. We meet people keen to avoid phone calls as they see them to be socially unpredictable, denying participants the ability to rehearse what they would prefer to say by text. We meet workers who no longer meet clients in-person for similar, but work-based reasons. This now cuts across generations. Yet the paradox, as shown time and again in research, is that face-to-face conversation leads to higher productivity. (Worth stressing that these findings are pre-pandemic.) There is much here that HR would find interesting, especially on how to run no-phone meetings. (Some companies have short, device-free, stand-up meetings which force attention.)
In the wider public domain, it also appears that social networks enable the fantasy that online activism achieves things. Signing online petitions alone rarely shifts the needle. In reality, the author maintains, politics still needs meetings, still needs conversations that require listening and learning. Without these, activism achieves little.
Turkle’s experience is that “something is slipping away”: a kind of face-to-face conversation that is unplanned and open-ended, the sort where there’s much eye-contact, and which cultivates empathy - a slower getting-to-know-someone experience.
Seven years have passed since this book was published, and it was about then that the theory of social displacement started to gain a foothold in our cultural thinking. I’ve not seen anything but the briefest and narrowest claims since then that this theory is overblown - or even incorrect - so perhaps we still need to be on our guard in case we really are losing something very precious.
A note about the book’s endnote system
One thing this book does superbly well is in presenting its notes and references, all 49 pages of them. Footnotes and endnotes have two usability issues. The former risk interrupting the reader’s concentration by placing superscript numbers within the chapter text and, when readers hunt down the reference in the endnotes, they need to know the chapter number in order to find what they’re looking for (which is often not helped when it is the book title or chapter title that are given at the top of each page - not the chapter number). This book avoids both these pitfalls in an innovative move. The text is devoid of footnote numbers, and the endnotes only require you to know the page number from whence you came. The notes sequentially list page numbers, and within them a short phrase in bold, followed by a colon and some commentary - a reference or a comment. (There are chapter titles interleaved within this sequence, but page numbers are all you need.)
Once readers are aware of how this system functions, there are huge usability gains to be enjoyed. Some reference to a research finding in the text will pique the reader’s interest and, if that triggers page flipping, then it will usually be rewarded with a pertinent citation and/or comment. All one needs is the current page number and the topic. If the same page references more than one topic, the bold quote from the text will be self-evident. It’s simplicity itself. Hats off to the author and/or her editors. There is an index, but no separate bibliography.
[Although the system used in Reclaiming Conversation follows the Chicago Style in the way that it eschews inline citation, it also provides readers with the key/quoted phrase, and is thus something of a hybrid.]
[Reclaiming Conversation - The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]