Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Meh. I had higher hopes for this book, a bloated 360 page tome better suited as a few pithy articles. The premise is relevant and the subject of many of my rants–we’re damaging ourselves by hyper-reliance on technology to keep us from ever being alone with our thoughts, our out-of-whack panic at the thought of boredom brushing our arm for even the briefest of moments, the inability of friends to meet up without averting the gaze down to the phone not to miss the stream of communication nattering on as we attempt to have an IRL conversation.

So what, you ask? 40% decline in empathy over the last 20 years among college students.1 These are the people who will be caring for me/us/you in your waning years, but most likely they’ll yank you around and yell at you for interrupting their screen time.

Technology gives us the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship… [and] the illusion of progress without the demands of action.” All those online petitions making everyone feel good yet accomplishing nothing.

Sherry Turkle did years of research for this book, acting as a consultant for a middle school whose teachers were alarmed that their kids were unable to interact with each other, interviewing college students and teenagers about their digital habits. There’s a lot of scary quotes like “I ask Carmen, twenty, if she ever has time to just sit and think. Her answer: ‘I would never do that.’ If she has a quiet moment she goes to Facebook.” From these young folk, Turkle learns the “rule of three” that seems to dictate acceptable behavior in a group. As long as three people are talking, it’s ok for whomever else is at the table to be on their phones. But conversation is thus kept very light, and the most frequent comment is “Wait, what?” as the people tune in and out and try to catch the ripple of conversation. Teachers are now EXPLICITLY teaching empathy and turn-taking in conversations, because these kids are not getting it from any other example they see in daily life–mom&dad are just as nose-to-the-screen as they are, and their interactions with friends are just to talk about what they see happening on their phones.

Of course, Turkle doesn’t want to come off as a doom and gloom-er, so she peppers her book with cautious notes of optimism. Apparently all is not lost, we can simply put our devices down and start paying attention to each other again.

1 From Sara Konrath’s “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no 2 (May 2011)