Friday, 22 July 2016

Social Development & Smart Phones - Part 2

Continuation of the transcript of Sherry Turkle PhD interview by Anna Maria Tremonti, on CBC Radio, Nov 16, 2015

AMT “(The library is) the place you could go and have some solitude, or even talk to people face-to-face.”

ST “Or read a book that didn’t have links that took you from what you’re reading to Facebook, to a game. In any case, the students were having a very hard time concentrating. One student said to me ‘You know I print out all of my assignments, because I can’t concentrate if I just use the tablets.” And then she said to me this really interesting thing ‘Why did they close the library?’ And it’s really a challenge – I just throw the gauntlet down to schools, as they accept give-away packages from Apple and Microsoft that give tablets to everybody in the school and tempt schools to close their libraries, which of course saves a lot of money, why are we closing the libraries?”

AMT “You write ‘We are all the products of conversations we have not had at home, the conversations we have side-stepped with family, friends, and intimates.’ Tell us more what you mean by that.”

ST “The large point I’m making there is that in the years I studied conversation I found that this was not a teenage problem, a millennial problem, a young persons’ problem, it was the adults who were retreating to their phones, it was parents who were texting during breakfast and dinner, it was parents who were giving kids baths and instead of talking to their kids while they were in the bathtubs, were just sitting on the toilet doing their email instead of engaging their children. So I found that in family situations it’s parents who were modeling a way of being with this technology that really excludes their children. And the hopefulness in my book … is I found so many children, let’s say 13, 14, 15 & 16, are saying ‘You know, I think these phones are keeping my family from paying any attention to me. I think these phones are keeping my mother from talking to me in the car – she’s trying to text while she’s driving. We go on vacation and she’s complaining the whole time that the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough. I want to have a conversation with her and she won’t look up. So I see a generation that raised without enough parental attention. And again, ‘technology makes us forget what we know about life.’ One of the big surprises in my research is finding so many families, so many couples, so many people in relationships of all sorts who found that arguing over text – some called it fighting by text, is how they preferred to air their grievances with each other. And what kept coming out is that they felt that this way of communicating with each other let them feel that they could say their piece, that they wouldn’t be interrupted, that they wouldn’t stop themselves because they felt flummoxed or embarrassed, or they didn’t have to face the person. You know it’s the face of another person you love that both brings that person alive for you, but also silences you in your care for them, makes you anxious, makes you vulnerable. And so without vulnerability, they felt they were better able to express themselves.”

AMT “When you talked about empathy before, this is also about leveling emotion, right - almost flat-lining emotion?”

ST “Yes. You get a chance first of all to edit who you are and how you present yourself. So you become a lawyer in a courtroom rather than someone who’s showing their pain. And that’s more comfortable, but it isn’t necessarily more true. It feels more comfortable too, because you feel you’re getting your argument out, and you’re presenting your best face. But actually, when you’re having an argument, you may not be in your best face, and it may be again that same theme – it may be more important for your partner, your husband, your spouse, your mother, your sister to see that you’re hurt, you’re vulnerable, you’re not in a big, best-face moment. And that may be part of what the argument needs to show. Take a parent & child - if you give your child the feeling that what you want from them is them to tell you the most controlled and edited story of what’s on their mind, and that will help you hear them, they begin to feel that that’s the version of self that is acceptable – this kind of perfect version of themselves. And that really isn’t a good message to give your child. You want to give your child the message that you can tolerate their messiness, and you’ll be OK. Because that’s the child’s greatest fear – that they’re feeling messy, and out of control, and scared, and that it’s so bad that their caretaker – the person they rely on – will dissolve, will disappear, will freak if their truth is known. You have to reassure your child that that’s not case, I can hear this, that’s not so bad, everybody’s like that, that’s being a person. And asking a child to present an edited version, this cleaned-up version, actually I think, has significant dangers.”

AMT “You make the point too that a lot of young people say they don’t know how to have a conversation. They want to learn to have a conversation. I was surprised. That really struck me.”

ST “Yes. Well they haven’t had as much practice as you think. Their families are texting over dinner. Then at school, they have this thing called ‘the rule of three’: let’s say there are 6 at dinner, 3 people have to have their heads up before you feel free to put your head down and text, because everybody comes to the table with their phone and everybody wants to text during dinner. So the conversation in those environments is going to be kept light. It’s going to be kept on topics where people don’t mind being interrupted, going kind of in and out of a conversation. And also you feel less empathic connection with people you’re with.”

AMT “You mention the essential paradox: ‘The very thing we use to connect us, is the thing that disconnects.’”

ST “Well I resolve the paradox by talking about the distinction between connection and conversation, that we’ve satisfied ourselves with mere connection. I don’t want to say that we’re not more connected, but that connection is somehow crowding out conversation. And then sometimes connection can bring us into conversation, and then it’s great. I had a reunion … that never would have happened without Facebook. I’m not anti-Facebook. That was one of the best experiences of my life. That was connection that led to conversation, and that’s what you want. But I think we have to learn the difference between connection and conversation, and make sure we don’t settle for connection, when really what we crave is conversation.”

AMT “So how do we reclaim conversation?”

ST “Well I’m filled with tips. I see this book as a call to arms, because I see us heading in a direction that’s dangerous, so I have many tips. First of all, to keep that distinction in mind. That what you’re looking for is conversation. You’re looking for it because it is the talking cure a crisis in empathy. Sacred spaces for conversation: the kitchen, the dining room, the car – the car I think is ground zero in reclaiming conversation in family; in work, studies show that conversation is good for the bottom line – workers do more, flourish, have greater collaboration, have greater productivity, greater creativity when they’re given both privacy and an opportunity for conversation. I think that in schools, if you’re offered a program where you give up your library but everybody has an Apple tablet and somehow you think you’ve been given it for free, it seems like a great deal – think twice about what the world of that school will look like. Most college and professional schools professors now are moving in the opposite direction – taking phones and laptops out of our classrooms, because that experiment did not work. Our students can’t concentrate (both) on what’s on their laptop, and the dynamic conversations that we want them to have in class. So sacred spaces in high schools where there are no phones, there are no laptops. I don’t think we have to give up our devices – we have to use them more mindfully. They’re not accessories. Maybe that’s my basic message: that these technologies are not accessories. They’re powerful mind tools that can really affect how we think. We should treat them that way.”

Photo: Katrin Koenning & Sarker Protick

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