It's Not Just Talk: Conversation as the Cure for Technologically Induced Polarization

By Kavanagh, Shayne | Government Finance Review, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

It's Not Just Talk: Conversation as the Cure for Technologically Induced Polarization


Kavanagh, Shayne, Government Finance Review


Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age Sherry Turkle Penguin Press 2015, 463 pages, $27.95 

Sherry Turkle, a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that the technologies that have become omnipresent in our lives have had a profound--and negative--effect on the way we relate to one another. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she hones in on the degraded quality of our conversations and the simple cure: more face-to-face conversation.

The foundation for Turkle's thesis is a virtuous circle that links conversation to the ability for empathy and self-reflection. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this virtuous circle starts with silent self-reflection, which is necessary for coming to grips with our own, authentic thoughts. This provides a solid foundation for listening to others and truly hearing what they have to say. Then, the thoughts of others provide the material for more productive self-reflection, which leads to richer conversation.

Technology breaks this circle by disupting solitude. Our "always on," "constantly connected" lifestyles have interfered with our ability to sit in silent contemplation. For example, Turkle cites an experiment where people were asked to sit quietly for 15 minutes, with no phones or books. Before the period of silence began, the subjects were asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they got bored. Although everyone said no, after just six minutes alone, a good number of participants had taken the electroshock option.

Outside of the laboratory, the consequences are far worse than an electric shock. If we can't stand to be alone with our own thoughts, we can't pay attention to ourselves and therefore can't pay attention to and empathize with others, much less engage them in conversation. Without conversation, we lose a valuable source of personal growth. A lack of empathy makes it impossible to discuss and solve difficult problems. This is not just a hypothetical problem; studies have shown a 40 percent decline in the markers for empathy, most of it within the past ten years. (1) Studies have shown that people have a reduced sense of solidarity with their communities and an increasing sense of loneliness. (2)

The good news is that people are resilient and can reverse these effects. For example, Turkle cites a study where a summer camp banned all electronic devices and found a measure-able increase in the children's capacity for empathy in just five days. (3) However, regaining the benefits of conversation doesn't necessarily require sequestering yourself in the woods for a week. Turkle's book is a call to action, telling us that "reclaiming conversation begins with the acknowledgment that speaking and listening with attention are skills. They can be taught. They take practice, and that practice can start now."

Much of Reclaiming Conversation explores the negative effect of technology on domains as diverse as family life, friendship, romance, education, and the workplace. We will focus on the implications for democracy, civic engagement, and public management. However, it is important to note at the outset that Turkle is not a Luddite. She recognizes that technology has important benefits, but contends that we must also recognize the ways in which it can be harmful, and monitor our usage our usage accordingly.

SMART PHONES IMPEDE CONVERSATION

Turkle focuses on two of the most ubiquitous technologies: smart phones and social media. Surprisingly, smart phones can negatively affect a conversation even when they are turned off! Just having a phone on a table reminds people that the conversation might be interrupted, which encourages people to keep conversations shallow and on topics of little consequence. (4) The presence of a phone reduces feelings of connectedness and empathy. …

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