Sherry TurkleWe’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.”

How Letters Used to BeSince 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)

Share Your Reflection



So many people tweeting *about* this very interesting conversation (before it's actually taken place), but no one yet has *commented* on it (after it took place). I think that's a graphic example of what Sherry Turkle was talking about when she said you need space to think and have an idea.

I've been using e-mail for more than 15 years, and I partly manage it by NOT having a smartphone, so I'm not constantly tempted to check it. I'm on Facebook, but not even once a day -- I don't live on Facebook. But then, I'm 68, so I've had many years of having learned to live without this technology. Maybe we need to institute "pre-Internet" hours, or a day of the week, to teach our children that there is life off the Internet. A recent New Yorker has a humor piece on this idea; it suggests the radical idea of "going outside" for a different look at the world.

Several months ago we put away the WiFi router at home and went back to sharing one computer. We're much more relaxed and found life goes on without having to check Facebook, e-mail, or whatever 24/7. We also don't have smartphones. I haven't bothered with Facebook or Twitter - too much noise and visual clutter.

We need more pushback to "shape" it the other way.

In other words, if someone looks at her phone/device while having a conversation with me, I say "I don't continue conversations with people who are not paying any attention to me, so I'm going to end this one."
This is what I call self-respect.
It's also how you handle an addict. Make boundaries. Don't enable them.

We should be crying out against the concept of "alive enough"!!
Not lamely accepting the deadening of spirit.

I wonder about Ms. Turkle's reaction to her daughter's comment about the turtle. I wonder where her FEAR is that her child is so detached that she cannot see the worth of a living creature. I found her reaction to be very flat and not particularly concerned.
I do not know how old her child was at the time of the comment. "For all that it is doing, it could hav been a robot?" I fear for the future if children feel this way about living creatures. I am a volunteer for a canine rescue and see the cruelty, the suffering, the horror that humans inflict upon other creatures daily. To have this kind of attitude toward a living creature does not bode well for other creatures or for humans. Instead of taking so much time with figuring out how we interact with our technology, how about spending more time teaching empathy toward the NATURAL world?

"what possible good does it do you to go out of the house with your cell phone on?" she asked... well, if you fall & break your hip, you want that phone. If your pal calls up & says, "I need help, my car broke down" you want that phone... if you see a hit & run or other crime, you want the phone... etc. etc. etc.! Gossip is one thing, but having a mobile phone massively increases quality of life when used responsibly: instead of that prohibitionist view we should encourage a responsible use view... that goes for drugs too, incidentally.

I enjoyed the program and really thought the comment regarding the lack of personal investment or textile contact with a digital object really interesting. Perhaps you could follow up this segment with an interview with someone who makes a living on the internet like Penny-Arcade (A very popular online-comic). They have made comments regarding the site itself, whether it should be used as a memorial if one of the creators dies or if it should go on. It has also expanded into the real world through expos and other digital realms such as video.

As a web comic guy myself, I've become very invested in my own personal digital space but I feel like facebook is foreign. It lacks intimacy and things I'd post on my own website for ANYONE to see I wouldn't post on my facebook page for people I just kinda know. The boundary lines are so much different and I feel like facebook is much more gray because I'm approaching other people with information instead of presenting it.

I'm also redesigning the site for the third time and this ability to mold the physical space of a website is so much different than something facebook offers.