For Valentine’s Day, maybe you’ll post a photo of your loved one on Facebook, tweet out a love poem or text-message your secret crush. But as we make those virtual connections, are we missing something?
Weekend Edition Sunday is exploring a few of the places in our lives where technology can actually drive us apart and make real intimacy tough: in our romantic relationships, with our kids, even in the workplace.
So how did we get here? Sherry Turkle has thought a lot about this. She’s a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. On the one hand, she says, barriers broken online can help people connect with others more deeply. But in hundreds of interviews about communications, the phrase Turkle hears the most is: “I’d rather text than talk.”
“We’re also moving into a world where we’re truncating our communications, making them briefer and briefer, where sometimes we’re willing to sacrifice conversation for mere connection,” she tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition.
There are benefits to backing off from confrontation, Turkle acknowledges. Some couples use email to fight, giving themselves time to cool down.
“On the other hand, there’s something very useful about learning how to be in a conversation where you have strong feelings and to experience someone else’s anger and your own and to control your feelings but to experience the humanity,” says Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology And Less from Each Other.
Technology, Turkle says, can be a way of making relationships “less messy.” For example, when a teenager tries to get out of dinner with his grandparents, sending a text is less involved than calling.
“In other words, that sense that someone is waiting for him, that there’s expectations, that there’s human desire and expectation here,” she says. “And that’s what we’re getting out of. We just type, ‘I’m not coming.’ Send.”
Turkle is not arguing that we wistfully look back on the Internet-free days of the past.
“I’m arguing that if you want to put intimate conversation in your life, you need to leave a little space for it,” she says.
“We all get to keep our phones and love our phones, but now that we’re into a more mature use of the technology, we also need to be able to say, ‘For this conversation, we need to talk.’ ”
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Valentine’s Day is coming up this week. Maybe you’ll post a photo of your loved one on Facebook, tweet out a love poem or text message your secret crush. There’s no doubt that our level of connectedness through smartphones and social media has made it a whole lot easier to reach out and touch those we love – at least virtually. But is there a downside to all this connectedness? Throughout the program today, we’re going to explore a few of the places in our lives where technology can actually drive us apart and make real intimacy tough. In our romantic relationships…
ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: I’d like to say we do say hello to each other face to face before we switch on any devices.
MARTIN: …with our kids.
SUE JORDAN: Why do you have this phone, David? Tell me why you don’t have your nice new phone.
DAVID JORDAN: Oh, I left it in my pocket and went down to the laundry room…
JORDAN: …it went in the washer.
MARTIN: …even in the workplace.
SHAYNE HUGHES: Email is this tool that is quite powerful and it’s really embedded in how we do work.
MARTIN: So, how did we get here? Sherry Turkle has thought a lot about this. She’s a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, and we asked her if our digital devices make us more or less capable of real communication.
SHERRY TURKLE: Well, the answer to that question is – it’s complicated. So many people have shared with me their stories of how unburdened by bodies, social status, age-height-weight. A certain deeper truth about themselves comes out to another person they’d met online. But at the same time, I think as we live in a culture where increasingly I’d rather text than talk, after interviewing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people about their current communications, that’s the phrase that I get most. We’re also moving into a world where we’re truncating our communications, making them briefer and briefer, where sometimes we’re willing to sacrifice conversation for mere connection.
MARTIN: Isn’t there though an argument that would say, you know, I can fly off the handle in person in one-on-one, face-to-face interactions, especially if it’s over something that’s tense, that’s confrontational, and that maybe it’s beneficial to take a deep breath and write an email, where I can be more deliberate and choose my words carefully.
TURKLE: Yes, absolutely. I’ve interviewed many husbands and wives actually who say that they prefer to do their fighting over email because they can have that cool-down. And that’s an interesting use of the technology. I don’t want to say that inventive people who are self-reflective about can use email constructively. On the other hand, there’s something very useful about learning how to be in a conversation where you have strong feelings and to experience someone else’s anger and your own, and to control your feelings but to experience the humanity…
MARTIN: And the messiness of that.
TURKLE: …and the messiness. And we’re sort of cleaning up human relationships and making them less messy. For example, kids today really don’t know how to apologize. I have a great example of a young boy about 13 who wants to get out of dinner with his grandmother and he wants to just send a message: not coming to dinner – send. And his father says to him – because they live in the same neighborhood – you go over and tell her you’re not coming to dinner, or you at least call. Because when he calls, he’s going to hear the grandmother say, but I’ve put the chicken in the oven. Your grandfather is waiting to hear about what you’re doing at school. In other words, that sense that someone is waiting for him. That there’s expectations, that there’s human desire and expectation here. And that’s what we’re getting out of. We just type: I’m not coming – send.
MARTIN: I mean, we all do that, right? It’s a lot easier to just write an email really quickly and say, sorry, can’t make it.
TURKLE: Exactly. And I think that that’s the kind of thing where we’re sort of taking shortcuts and we’re shortchanging ourselves.
MARTIN: But you’re not arguing that we wistfully look back on years past and a different time. We live in the world we live in with the devices and technology we have and it improves our lives immeasurably in many ways. You’re a busy working mom. I imagine you use technology.
TURKLE: All the time. I’m not arguing any kind of retro position. I’m arguing that if you want to put intimate conversation in your life, you need to leave a little space for it. It is not a luddite thing to say or it is not a retro thing to say. I love texting you. I love keeping in touch with text. But for this conversation, we really need to talk. We all get to keep our phones and love our phones. But now we’re into a more mature use of the technology, we also need to be able to say for this conversation we need to talk.
MARTIN: Sherry Turkle is a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT. Sherry, thanks so much for talking with us.
TURKLE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.