For nearly 30 years now, Sherry Turkle, professor of social psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, has been exploring the effects of digital worlds on human
Her books, have charted the seductions of “intimate machines”, the advance
of social media and virtual realities and the all-pervasive internet, and the
effect these things have had on our culture and our lives.
Her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power
of Talk in the Digital Age, is a call to
arms to arrest what she sees as the damaging consequences of never being far
from email or text or Twitter or Facebook, in particular the impact it has on
family life, on education, on romance and on the possibilities of solitude
She measures these effects in a breakdown of empathy between children, in
the consequences of increasingly distracted family interaction and a growing
need for constant stimulus. Her antidote is a simple one: we need to talk more
to each other.
This interview took place by telephone last week.
You have been writing
about these issues for a long time now. Has it always felt like a losing
Less so now. In the beginning I thought I was saying things people didn’t
want to hear. I think more people see something happening now that they don’t
like, but they don’t know what to do about it. This new statistic seems
telling: 89% of Americans admit they took out a phone at their last social
encounter – and 82% say that they felt the conversation deteriorated after they
It is captured by the story I tell of the young girl saying: “Daddy! Stop
Googling! I want to talk to you.”
It is interesting to note that quite a lot of the antipathy towards being
“always online” comes not from adults but from children. I suppose we have
assumed that these habits would only become more ingrained among people who
have grown up with them, but your work shows that is not necessarily the
case. Absolutely not. I was so impressed by kids who said: “I want to raise my
children not the way I’ve been raised, but the way my parents think they have
been raising me: in a house of conversation.” That was stunning.
But what if children haven’t had any experience of sitting around a dinner
table, or of talking to their friends without a iPhone to hand? How do they
know what they are missing? That’s the danger. But I believe that we are
resilient. I like the study that shows that after five days away at camp
without connections you see the empathy markers among children rising. The
ability to recognise the emotions of somebody in a video or a story go right
back up. I believe we are wired to talk. It is a Darwinian thing.
I guess we are also wired for novelty and distraction… Yes. But I feel we
have now created an environment that will distract us to distraction. My recipe
does not involve my giving up my phone. It’s too useful. But it means not using
it on occasions like this when I am trying to give you my full attention. The
human voice occupies a lot of bandwidth if you listen to it properly. If I was
also texting, you would not be getting a sense of me.
I’ve worked in a
newspaper office for 20-odd years. In that time, like all offices, it has
become much quieter. Everyone used to be on the phone, now they are often
emailing. Do you think something is lost in that?
If you sent me 10 email questions, you would get very different answers
from me. Typing is not the same as talking. Students increasingly say they
don’t want to see me in person, they just want to email me. When I ask why,
they basically say they want to get their questions perfect, so I can make my
answers perfect. They want my perfect to meet their perfect.
Email allows us to give
the press-release version of ourselves?
Yes. But that is not who we are. It’s an algorithmic view of life. Who ever
loved learning because they asked the professor a perfect question and the
professor gave a perfect answer?
Certainly when I think of teachers who inspired me I couldn’t tell you
precisely what they said, but I can certainly remember the tone and the
circumstances in which they said it. It’s the fact you were there and thought:
could I someday be like them?
I have to fight the impulse to use my phone as an alarm clock rather than
leaving it in another room. If I don’t I will wake up in the middle of the
night and think: I’ll check my messages. Or the number of my book on Amazon. If
I start checking my phone at two in the morning I suddenly find it is four in
the morning and I have to get up in two hours.
People really struggle. I have interviewed several people who say they now
have to go to remote country cabins to get any concentrated work done. Then
they find themselves driving around the neighbourhood trying desperately to
find an unlocked Wi-Fi signal. Knocking on doors.
The scary thing about that is that these people are adults. Children have
much less opportunity for self-control. Yes but the thrust of my argument is
not that we have a device that has constant conversation on it. It is with the
fact that there are no limits on that. It is with the father who checks his
email while giving his two-year-old a bath when he used to play with her. Those
are the lost conversations I am worried about. The fact is we need to design
around our vulnerabilities.
But there is no sense that the corporations that make billions of dollars
from these habits are going to adopt that idea willingly. I like to look at the
food industry and how it has evolved. My mother, when I was growing up, adored
me but she also fed me white bread, tinned vegetables, potatoes that she made
from flakes, TV dinners. It was a profit-centred industrial kind of machine
that led her to do that. But a young mother today – if that was what she was
feeding her child – you would know she was not with the programme. How did we
turn that around? It certainly wasn’t because the food industry said “Ooops!”
It came from people seeing the effects of this diet. And that is how I think
this will go also. There is study after study saying the same things: talk to
each other, experience solitude, experience boredom. Boredom is your
imagination calling to you. I think it will happen slowly.
I suppose in the case of nutrition there are physical effects that can be
measured, though; isn’t this more intangible? I’m not sure the effects of not
talking are hard to measure. The interviews that I did in business settings,
people said people come to them for jobs and literally don’t know how to have a
conversation. I mean if you take a baby and put them on a baby bouncer that has
a slot for an iPad, instead of taking time to have eye contact and reading to
them, and then they go to a school where most of their instruction is on a
screen, why be surprised when they show up as sixth-graders [those in the first
year of secondary school] looking down at the floor and being unable to speak?
I came across many kids who are set homework on tablets but can’t concentrate
on reading it until they print it out. I am sympathetic to that. I know for a
fact that it’s hell to try to read complicated things on a machine that also
gives me access to every other thing in my life. We are asking kids to read
homework on a device that also gives them access to everything that matters to
them: Facebook. It’s sad to witness that struggle.
How did you negotiate
these things with your own daughter?
I have two daughters, 16 and 12, and my experience is that you have to
choose your battles… We did the sacred space thing. And it mostly worked. No
computers or phones in the kitchen, at the dining table, or in the car. Those
are the places I think where you create family space. The car is very
important. I don’t think it works if you talk about set hours or whatever. And
it is of course crucial that you apply the same sacred space rule to yourself
as to them. The issue is not that your child loves using their screen to write.
The issue is that they should not be doing it when they are talking to you. I
never friended my daughter on Facebook; that wasn’t our space to share things.
Instead I had dinner with her pretty much every night. I am not
anti-technology, I am pro-conversation.
Do you encounter
hostility to that message?
Much less than five years ago. When I wrote my last book, Alone Together,
people were angry. The dominant emotion I encountered was irritation: “Give it
Isn’t that a classic symptom of addiction – people don’t want to be told
that the thing they are in thrall to is harming them? I wouldn’t use that
metaphor. If you are addicted to heroin you have to give it up completely, go
cold turkey. Here it is a different assignment. I am not planning to give up my
phone. I just need to know what it is good for.
If people start to buy the idea that machines are great companions for the
elderly or for children, as they increasingly seem to do, we are really playing
with fire. I think the stakes are very high. But the good thing is we don’t
have to invent anything to turn it around. We already have each other to talk