We’ve been paying attention to Sherry Turkle for some time, as a thinker and observer on technology in terms of the human self, spirit, and identity. I love the philosophically witty title of one of her books: Simulation and Its Discontents. She is a social scientist through and through, an immensely serious researcher into what she calls the “subjective” side of technology. For over three decades, she’s been analyzing the inner effects of the digital tools that are transforming our days — how they affect our attention and relationships, our sense of reality, and even of “aliveness.”
Earlier this year, she made waves with her book Alone Together. That title itself has become a catchword for the ironic capacity of communications technologies to alienate us from one another. Alone Together was reviewed in that vein as well — as a call to unplug our tablets and phones, our players and laptops. And yet, as I read Sherry Turkle and listen to her speak, I hear her saying something far more thought-provoking and indeed hopeful: that each of us can find practical and meaningful ways to shape technology to our purposes, towards honoring what we hold dear in life.
I once heard Sherry Turkle insist to an interviewer, with some exasperation: “I’m not saying, ‘unplug.’ I’m saying, ‘reflect.’ I’m saying, ‘converse.’” And here is the starting point for the conversation she would encourage all of us to have within ourselves, within our workplaces, and especially within our families: just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up. The reality check is that we are meeting the glorious communications technologies of this century in their infancy. It is up to us to mature them, to direct them to the best of human potential, and to develop wise habits for living deliberately and sustainably with them.
(photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Of all the perspectives she sheds on this challenge, none is more sobering than the fact that the adults she’s studied are at least as culpable as any teenagers in giving their lives over unthinkingly to digital gadgets. Far too often, she says, it is parents who are on their BlackBerries at the dinner table, parents responding to email and therefore failing to look up and meet their children’s eyes when they pick them up from school, parents failing to be present with and for their children in ordinary moments that make up the memories of a childhood — on playgrounds, on a nature walk.
Sherry Turkle puts arresting words around what is at stake. On a very deep level, for example, we can fail to teach our children the rewards of solitude — of being able to be at peace in our own company. This is an enduring human challenge. Yet the possibilities for missing it are perhaps more abundant and seductive in this generation. And, as Sherry Turkle reminds us, “If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
Since speaking with Sherry Turkle and taking in some of her strategies, I’ve been more deliberate (not yet perfect) at drawing lines with email between work and home. I’ve taken an idea she offers — of selectively declaring “sacred spaces” like the dinner table as off limits for technology. And while my children grumble, they too are embracing this. I’ve started regularly printing out emails that are substantive or special in some way and putting them in boxes like I did once upon a time far more naturally with letters or thoughts written in the first place on paper.
And as I talk about this in my circles of family and friends, I’m hearing about all kinds of strategies others are devising to make the technologies we love more humanly compatible and even nourishing. With this show, we’re hoping to spark a lively and useful exchange of such ideas among listeners. Tell us and other listeners if you’ve created strategies to lead an examined digital life — to shape it to honor what matters. Please join in!
About the images: top, portrait of Sherry Turkle (photo: Jean-Baptiste Labrune/Flickr); bottom, Is the age of the handwritten letter over? (photo by papertrix/Flickr)