Friday, December 4, 2015

Sherry Turkle I

In case you were wondering, I haven't had a stroke or died. I started reading Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. I had heard of her before in reference to her previous book, Alone Together, which was published in 2011, and was interested in reading about the ongoing effects of digital media. Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., seems to be one of the few public intellectuals writing nontechnical books on this subject, which I think deserves far more attention than it gets. As I've said, the brains of younger people who have access to the latest technology are being organized in ways that defy historical precedent, and there doesn't seem to be much discussion of the potentially significant negative consequences, both to individuals and to society at large.

Turkle has a background in sociology and psychoanalysis, hence, from a scientific point of view, the research cited tends to look murky and subjective compared to that of some other disciplines. However, this is just the kind of book that I was looking for, because it is filled with relevant anecdotes regarding the behavior of people with whom I have very little contact: educated Americans in roughly the five-to-thirty age group. Like most quasi-scientific popular nonfiction, the book is a little bloated, repetitive and too informal in its argumentation to generate much of a punch. Moreover, Turkle, at the age of 67, is a pre-digital person like me, and some of her thinking seems old fashioned, particularly in the area of psychoanalysis, which I consider obsolete. Still, I am finding the book useful for understanding younger people, and there are surprises. Apparently older people, me included, engage in some of the questionable behaviors encouraged by digital media. For now I'll just mention some of the points I've come across that I find interesting, and perhaps I'll follow up with another post later on.

Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. In one experiment, people were asked to sit quietly – without a phone or a book – for fifteen minutes. At the start of the experiment, they were asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they became bored. They said absolutely not: No matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question. But after just six minutes alone, a good number of them were doing just that.

Interviewee Eleanor:
Let's say we are seven at dinner. We all have our phones. You have to make sure that at least two people are not on their phones or looking down to check something – like a movie time on Google or going on Facebook. So you need sort of a rule of two or three. So I know to keep, like, two or three in the mix so that other people can text or whatever. It's my way of being polite. I would say that conversations, well, they're pretty, well fragmented. Everybody is kind of in and out. Yeah, you have to say, "Wait, what..." and sort of have people fill in a bit when you drop out.

One of Eleanor's friends explains that if a conversation at dinner turns serious and someone looks at a phone, that is her signal to "lighten things up." And she points out that the rule of three is a way of being polite even when you're not at the dinner table. When "eyes are down" at phones, she says, "conversation stays light well beyond dinner."

In order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee solitude. In time, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves is diminished. If we don't know who we are when we are alone, we turn to other people to support our sense of self. This makes it impossible to fully experience others as who they are.

Developmental psychology has long made the case for the importance of solitude. And now so does neuroscience. It is only when we are alone with our thoughts – not reacting to external stimuli – that we engage that part of our brain's basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past. This is the "default mode network." So, without solitude, we can't construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digital have always had something external to respond to. When they go online, their minds are not wandering but rather are captured and divided.

...if we don't have experience with solitude – and this is often the case today – we start to equate loneliness with solitude. This reflects the impoverishment of our experience. If we don't know the satisfactions of solitude, we only know the panic of loneliness.

Cara, a college student who has been using an iPhone app called the Happiness Tracker, has a different problem. How much should you look at the "output" of a tracking program to clue you in on your feelings? Over several weeks, the Happiness Tracker has asked for Cara's level of happiness as well as information about where she is, what she is doing, and who she is with. Its report: Her happiness is declining. There is no clear link to any one factor. When she gets this result, Cara finds herself feeling less happy with her boyfriend. The app did not link him to her declining happiness, but she begins to wonder if he is the cause of her discontent. Uncertain of her feelings, she ends up breaking up with her boyfriend in partial deference to the app.

These days, neuroscientists speculate that when parents caring for children turn to their phones, they may "effectively simulate a still-face paradigm" – in their homes or out in a restaurant – with all the attendant damage. It is not surprising if children deprived of words, eye contact, and expressive faces become stiff and unresponsive with others.

As you can see, Turkle provides much food for thought. She has exactly the same reaction that I had to Victoria in my earlier posts: here is a dysfunctional child who is not on track to becoming a full-fledged adult in the sense to which I'm accustomed. The book is a rallying cry for preventing children from becoming robotic zombies who never understand themselves and live in a trance in which they sail through their lives as if belonging to a subhuman herd of nervous mammals. Turkle proposes what amounts to talk therapy that gives kids a slap in the face in order to wake them up from their stupor, which she links to a lack of emotional development and an inability to empathize with others or understand themselves.

For the most part, I am saying "Yes!" and giving high fives as I read this, but on reflection I am a little worried that Turkle may be too invested in old paradigms. I completely agree with her that this media environment has given rise to the fearful reactions of college students who make their campuses hotbeds of political correctness because they lack the self-confidence and intellectual maturity to deal with ideas and behaviors that don't fall within their narrow comfort zones. And she is obviously correct about the irresponsibility of parents who lazily allow digital devices to subvert time-tested, biologically necessary childrearing methods. However, when I think of these phenomena in the context of what I've written about anthropocentrism and AI, it may be that this digital herding is the vanguard of the future. I'm not so sure that a later form of AI couldn't lead to an improvement over the world as we know it. With the chaotic circumstances that keep surfacing in our human-controlled present, I don't see how anyone can dismiss out of hand an orderly world in which people are prevented from engaging in wars and terrorism or despoiling the planet so as to ruin it for future generations. You might say that the algorithms currently used in smartphones are primitive precursors to ones that may one day work much better and encourage richer personal development while simultaneously reducing world disorder and instability. What would be wrong with that? Possibly Turkle is stuck in obsolete Enlightenment thinking that places mankind on a pedestal and denies the existence of our recurring deficiencies.

Another criticism I have of Turkle is that psychoanalysis and talk therapy have historically not been terribly effective at changing behavior on a large scale. Through much of its existence, psychoanalysis seems largely to have been a fashion statement of the rich: they could afford to hire a very expensive personal advisor to consult on demand. Because it didn't usually work, most people couldn't afford it and drugs were a lot cheaper, it more or less died out. Even if it still exists, its popularity is probably confined to well-heeled and highly-educated people like the ones Turkle runs into in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this regard Turkle may be addressing a very small audience. Beyond formal psychotherapy, she seems oblivious to the fact that in most families childrearing has never been a controlled process in which parents have the luxury of following all of the latest recommendations offered by the current gurus.

On a personal level I am benefiting somewhat from Turkle's mention of the failings of adult users of digital media. Although I don't fall into the category of serious abusers, there are still behaviors to watch out for. I do have a smartphone, but I mainly use it as a phone – about once a week. I don't have digital service and it is connected to our home Wi-Fi; I get beeps when I receive e-mails or messages, but that usually occurs only a couple of times a day. Occasionally I use the smartphone on public Wi-Fi while on trips. This means that I am nothing like the people discussed by Turkle, who are actively engaged with their smartphones day and night. However, I am guilty of one of their sins, which is that of constant editing. I genuinely love having the ability to edit my written communications, and I frequently do it on this blog, sometimes even after I've made a post. But my motivation is somewhat different from Turkle's target: I like being able to improve on whatever I've written. Turkle criticizes people who are obsessed with controlling their public image, and although I can't honestly say that I am completely indifferent to my public image, I genuinely don't care that much what people think of me, and I have no interest in getting "Likes" or "Thumbs Up." Even so, I do to some extent inhabit a bubble. The fact that I have withdrawn from commenting on other sites could be construed as an attempt to avoid disagreements and gain control over my environment so as to eliminate anyone who disagrees with me. From my point of view, I have retreated to this blog only because I have given up on finding substantive, interesting and civil discussion on other sites, which tend to be populated by the same narrow-minded, inflexible and intolerant people whose behavior Turkle finds problematic.

I'm only about a fourth of the way through the book and will probably have more to say later.

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