How Smartphones Are Killing Conversation 

A Q&A with MIT professor Sherry Turkle about her new book, Reclaiming Conversation.

What happens when we become too dependent on our mobile phones? According to MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation, we lose our ability to have deeper, more spontaneous conversations with others, changing the nature of our social interactions in alarming ways.

Sherry TurkleSherry Turkle

Turkle has spent the last 20 years studying the impacts of technology on how we behave alone and in groups. Though initially excited by technology’s potential to transform society for the better, she has become increasingly worried about how new technologies, cell phones in particular, are eroding the social fabric of our communities.

In her previous book, the bestselling Alone Together, she articulated her fears that technology was making us feel more and more isolated, even as it promised to make us more connected. Since that book came out in 2012, technology has become even more ubiquitous and entwined with our modern existence. Reclaiming Conversation is Turkle’s call to take a closer look at the social effects of cell phones and to re-sanctify the role of conversation in our everyday lives in order to preserve our capacity for empathy, introspection, creativity, and intimacy.

I interviewed Turkle by phone to talk about her book and some of the questions it raises. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Jill Suttie: Your new book warns that cell phones and other portable communication technology are killing the art of conversation. Why did you want to focus on conversation, specifically?

Sherry Turkle: Because conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born—because of eye contact, because we can hear the tones of another person’s voice, sense their body movements, sense their presence. It’s where we learn about other people. But, without meaning to, without having made a plan, we’ve actually moved away from conversation in a way that my research was showing is hurting us.

JS: How are cell phones and other technologies hurting us?

ST: Eighty-nine percent of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in. Basically, we’re doing something that we know is hurting our interactions.

I’ll point to a study. If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.

So, even something as simple as going to lunch and putting a cell phone on the table decreases the emotional importance of what people are willing to talk about, and it decreases the connection that the two people feel toward one another. If you multiply that by all of the times you have a cell phone on the table when you have coffee with someone or are at breakfast with your child or are talking with your partner about how you’re feeling, we’re doing this to each other 10, 20, 30 times a day.

JS: So, why are humans so vulnerable to the allure of the cell phone, if it’s actually hurting our interactions?

ST: Cell phones make us promises that are like gifts from a benevolent genie—that we will never have to be alone, that we will never be bored, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, and that we can multitask, which is perhaps the most seductive of all. That ability to put your attention wherever you want it to be has become the thing people want most in their social interactions—that feeling that you don’t have to commit yourself 100 percent and you can avoid the terror that there will be a moment in an interaction when you’ll be bored.

Read full article at: How Smartphones Are Killing Conversation | Greater Good

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