Notes on “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”

“Reclaiming Conversation” is a book by Sherry Turkle.  She focuses on smartphones in particular.  As a matter of personal edification, and as the user of a dumb cell phone I  found this book valuable in understanding the popularity of smartphone and texting.  There are several reasons I do not use a smartphone.  I find the screen size much to small.  I require much more context in what I view.  I also need a conventional keyboard, those on smartphones are much too small.  Similarly I refuse to text and do not read texts.  I also find that smartphones add to an already existing information overload.  Consequently, I do not like interruptions and live in a world where timeliness will not suffer if I wait until a time when I am free to devote full attention to messages and material which is important to process.  Having read Turkle’s book, I have no desire for a smartphone, and should I ever purchase a smartphone, I’ll use it sparingly.

I’ve long been baffled trying to understand why people text when it is so much easier to talk.  Most teenagers send around 100 texts per day, so there must be some reason this is so popular.  Apparently, there is a sense of control when one texts.  One can read what one has written before it is sent, and once it is sent, one can wait to see if and who, if anyone responds.  So many feel that texting provides a sense of control that they feel is important.

In addition to needing to feel in control, there also seems to be a compulsion to be connected.  According to Turkle, 44% of users never turn off their phones.  Although I understand the data indicating that people feel a need to be connected most of the time, I still fail to see why they feel this necessity.  The healthy memory blog has written posts about FACEBOOK and Dunbar’s number.  See the healthy memory blog post “How Many Friends is Too Many.”  Dunbar is an evolutionary biologist who calculated the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be 150.  Before smartphones Dunbar estimated that there are about five people who are close and who we speak with frequently, and  about 100 acquaintances we speak with about once a year.  With the exception of the 150 number, which is a biological constraint, the other numbers have apparently gone up drastically since the advent of the cell phone.  Friendship requires an investment of time.  We can only afford a limited number of good friends.  A large number of friends implies a large number of superficial relationships.  It appears that in the smartphone era, quantity is valued over quality.

There also appears to be an aversion to solitude.  An experiment was run in which participants were asked to sit by themselves for fifteen minutes.  They were provided a device which they could use to shock themselves, although all the participants indicated that they would not use the device.  Nevertheless, many of the participants shocked themselves after only six minutes.  I find this result extremely depressing, to think that people would find solitude that they chose to give themselves an aversive shock to cope with loneliness.  Solitude is important for both personal and intellectual development.  We need to spend time with ourselves.

One researcher reports a 40% loss of empathy in the past 20 years.  The healthy memory blog post “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism noted that throughout our lives our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Geoff Colvin and many others regard empathy as a uniquely human skill that will prevent computers from pushing humans out of the job market.  Well, empathy apps are being developed.  But empathy is developed best during conversations with our fellow humans.  This excessive use of smartphones are inhibiting, if not precluding this development.

Smartphone use implies multitasking, and whenever we multitask the performance on component tasks declines.  If you do not believe this, then read the 18 healthy memory blog posts on the topic.  The use of smartphones during classes detracts from the lecture or the topic being discussed.  Were I still teaching I would not allow the use of smartphones during classes.

There is a chapter on smartphones and romance that I found extremely depressing.  Most of the time I am envious of the young in this digital age, but not in the case of romance.  In short, smartphones take the romance out of romance.

I disagree with what Turkle writes about Massively Online Open Courses.  She puts conversations against  these courses and ignores the genuine benefits of these courses.  First of all, a Massively Online Open Course does not preclude conversations.  Secondly, conversations, as important as they are, need not be a necessary component of all courses.

At the end of the book Turtle writes about humanoid robots and robotic pets.  I did not see the relevance of these topics to the central thesis regarding conversations.

So having stated the problem, what can be done about it.

First of all, having recognized the costs of multi-tasking and do a cost benefit analysis of where smartphone use is appropriate.  Then establish rules or guidelines.

It is noted that many employees of social media companies make it a point to send their children to technology free schools.  And there is the following quotation from Steve Jobs biographer.  “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and variety of things.  No one ever pulled out an iPAD or computer.  He did not encourage his own children’s use of iPADS or iPHONES.

“Restoring Conversations” is extensively documented.  Touching them takes you to the notes.  Unfortunately, there is no DONE enabling an easy return to the text.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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