Turkle: People must embrace solitude for conversation

Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology initiative on Technology and Self, answers questions after her morning lecture Monday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Feeling lonely has become a problem people need to solve, and connectivity through technology has become the solution. But it also leads to isolation.

As people feel the need to connect more, the ability to have conversations diminishes.

“We make our technologies, and then, in turn, our technologies make and shape us,” said Sherry Turkle, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on Technology and Self. “They make and shape our digital identities.”

Turkle spoke about solitude and how the communications culture has shifted as a result of technology during Monday’s morning lecture as the first speaker of Week Six, themed “Digital Identity.”

With the shift in communications culture today, people are setting themselves up for trouble in various aspects of their lives, including relationships, creativity, productivity and leadership, Turkle said.

She expressed that people today would rather text than talk to one another. As a result, people have grown fearful of conversation, which has been paradoxically replaced by the need to connect.

And people’s mindset has become: “I share, therefore I am.” Turkle described that idea as people feeling insecure about ideas and feelings until they share them.

“It used to be, ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call,’” she said. “And now it’s, ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.’”

Control has become a central point of communication and the core of digital identity, Turkle said. What people now value most is the ability to control what they focus their attention on. A sensibility has developed in which people are all alone together — everyone can be in one place at once, but their attention is focused on something else.

“We want to be with each other, but we also want to be elsewhere,” Turkle said. “We want to be connected to wherever else we want to be.”

In today’s world, people are too busy communicating to listen and talk to each other about what matters. That creates challenges for collaboration, innovation, engagement and leadership, Turkle said.

Technology has enabled people to control what they say, and it lets them portray themselves how they want to be seen. But in real-time conversations, people cannot make edits and retouch.

It has also allowed people to keep in touch with many people, while minimizing human contact, she said.

“It’s like you can’t get enough of each other if we can use technology to have each other at distances we can control,” Turkle said. “Not too close, but not too far. Just right. I call it the Goldilocks effect.”

That is the point at which people sacrifice conversations for the sake of feeling connected, Turkle said.

Connecting works in information gathering, but not in understanding and knowing each other, she said. Conversations let people determine tones and nuances, and help them see from others’ points of view. It teaches people how to negotiate, how to compromise and how to have conversations with themselves, she said.

“A flight from conversation can mean lost chances to learn skills of self-reflection,” Turkle said. “For young people growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.”

Connecting via texts, posts and emails does not add up to a conversation, Turkle said. People believe those forms of communication will give them control over time and emotional exposure.

Instead, people get more messages in response, and the idea of communicating in other ways seems impossible, Turkle said. In turn, we become reactive, transactional and responsive instead of proactive.

The need for constant contact negatively affects education, relationships, creativity, business and leadership, she said. As the amount and speed of communication increases, people expect quicker responses. In turn, they ask more simple questions.

“We’re insisting that the world is increasingly complex,” Turkle said, “but we’re creating a communications culture that has decreased — decreased — the time available to us to sit and think uninterrupted.”

Technology also can take advantage of our vulnerabilities, because we expect more from it than we do from people, Turkle said.

“We are lonely, but we are fearful of intimacy,” she said. “We are drawn to technologies like instant connectivity that offers us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

The fear of conversation among adolescents is something people should be aware of, Turkle said. With technology, the task of separation from parents has become more difficult, she said.

“Feelings of being a bit alone and stranded in adolescence used to be considered being a step toward being comfortable with autonomy,” she said.

But technology has made bypassing loneliness possible by making equal the validation of a feeling and establishing that feeling, Turkle said.

That is a result of the expectations of technology and connectivity: people can put their attention wherever they want; they will always be heard; and they will never be alone.

Never being alone is most crucial, Turkle said, and people look to connect with someone the moment they feel lonely.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved,” she said. “That’s how technology makes us feel, and it can be solved by giving us a way to connect.”

But the reality is that people become isolated the more they connect, she said. The rush to connect prevents people from embracing solitude, and from separating and gathering themselves.

Solitude is important, because without it, people turn to others to feel alive and less anxious, Turkle said. When that happens, they do not appreciate or have conversations with one another.

Though people think constant connection will make them feel less lonely, she said, it has the reverse effect. People need to realize that solitude is conversation’s partner, not an antagonist, Turkle said.

“There is this paradoxical insight that you need to develop the capacity for solitude as an essential starting point,” she said. “You have conversation when you’re feeling whole and able to be alone with your thoughts, not when you feel compelled to connect and feeling insecure about yourself.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How do we find each other and make this happen?

A: I really believe the best things begin at home. I talk about sacred places, and I mean that seriously — dining room, kitchen, car — technology-free zones, device-free zones. These are the places for conversation. There’s absolutely no reason that there should be texting in your kitchen. This is hearth of your home. This is where you and your family speak to each other. People say to me, “But it’s so fantastic to be able to go on Google and find out …” — I’m not saying in an epistemological emergency in your kitchen. But you if you’re having a genuine, legitimate epistemological emergency in your kitchen, as parents, you’ll know. It’s like pornography — you’ll know it when you see it. You’ll make that important exception. But basically, your kitchen is for cooking and finding out what’s happening with your children, how to introduce these rules, not when your child is 10, not when your child is 13, not when your child is 11, but when your child is 0. It’s just how your kitchen and dinner table functions. Car — crucial. You’re not texting because you’re driving. You’re not on the phone because you don’t. And you explain to your 2-year-old how the car works. The car is where your family talks. If your child becomes 8 and explains that all his friends text in the car, you explain to the child, in our car, we have so little time with our family, the car is such important time for us to catch up with each other. In our car, we don’t have any devices, because in our family, that’s how it is. Introduce at 2 and 3, these become the rules of the car. And the key is to introduce these as the rules as really as the youngest ages. Kitchen, dining room, cars are sacred spaces. There was an article in The New York Times today, Matt Richtel. I recommend it to all of you. I got it through my iPhone. I don’t know if there’s a print version. Matt Richtel did an article about how mobile phone companies feel that they had introduced something addictive and were now trying to walk it back for their employees and for the people that they’re going to be advising not to buy their phones. I think there’s starting to be a sense something very powerful is going on here, and we want to learn how to live with it better. I am not suggesting, as many as my colleagues are, that we are going to get rid of these devices. The point is not to get rid of or envision a world where we don’t have these devices. The point is to envision a world in which we live with these devices in a way where we put ourselves and the kind of relationships we want to have first. But I’m not from some school that somehow these are going to go away, that we’re going to get rid of them, because there’s too much that we do that is constructive, and productive and good. We can make the rules for how we use this. When cars came on, and we didn’t have seat belts, we didn’t have airbags — we had nothing. We didn’t have rules of the road. It’s questioning the rules of the road. Long answer, short question.

Q: What resources of social media can we harness to morph into the golden mean of solitude and community?

A: For example, I tell you a resource of social media that I just used to turn into enduring friendship. Last week, I was at my fourth grade reunion, from PS 216, Brooklyn. So, this isn’t using social media for solitude, this is using social media for really a different reason. I went to PS 216 Brooklyn, and my fourth and fifth grade had a reunion in Los Angeles. It turns out the PS 216 Brooklyn has produced more Disney executives per unit. So, it never could have happened without Facebook. One person knew one person, who knew another person. Nothing about solitude came to mind, but it was a profound experience organized on Facebook. I could talk about Arab Spring, but I’m talking about a Brooklyn fourth grade reunion. Clearly, you can use social media to bring people together of common cause, common desire, common wish. And certainly, you can bring people together to be with you for common purpose. So, I think social media for friendship, for living a saner life. I think Thoreau would have used social media to organize. Thoreau had people over. When he was out there, he wasn’t out there alone. He had conversation, a lot of conversation. And I can see him on Facebook getting people, the best people together for conversation, and then, structuring his solitude. I think the point is to use social media to structure your life for conversation and solitude. I’m suggesting both solitude and conversation are partners. They’re not antagonists. You need solitude and a capacity to know yourself and be with yourself, in order to have the constructive conversations we need to have. And I think social media can be part of that mix.

Q: Is texting changing the process of writing?

A: You know it’s too early for us. For years, I studied how word processing had changed the process of the writing of my students. If somebody asked me that, I would be so eloquent. Turns out, it makes good writers much better, and bad writers much worse. In other words, if you really don’t care, it makes you even sloppier, because you think it’s gorgeous and you turn it in. But if you’re a good writer, it really gets you to polish and refine. Texting — we just don’t know. It’s a genre unto itself. I don’t even want to call it writing. It’s not exposition; it’s its own world; it’s its own form. People become brilliant at it. So, people become brilliant at this new form. But it is a form of its own. And people become brilliant at it. So, I’m currently studying it for my new project on conversation, because great texters and great Twitterers have convinced me that it is a new genre and needs to be studied as a new genre that people become brilliant at. So, there’s nothing to dismiss here. There are people who are really great at it, but it’s not like then you say, “Oh,” and then, “How does it change poetry?” I think it needs to be studied as thing unto itself that you can become magnificent at, this new thing unto itself. I don’t think you then say, “You’re a great Twitterer. How does it change your essay writing?” I don’t think that’s going to be the right question. But I think you need to say, “My God, look at how this girl twitters.” I can’t do it. My texts are apparently not elegant.

Q: Is technology moving us away from a spiritual life?

A: I don’t think necessarily. I think it’s awesome. I think for some people — for me, not — I think it’s an awesome thing.

Q: Your book speaks a lot about robots. Would you talk to us briefly about the robot aspect of your book?

A: The first half of my book is about sociable robots. Sociable robots are the kind of robots — can I take you as an example — that look you in the eye, that gesture in your direction, that say your name, that mirror your motions. That, in other words, do a couple of things — and Siri isn’t a robot, but it’s a sociable program — that do a couple of pretty simple things that a robot can do that make you feel that there’s somebody home in the robot and that it understands you. And the way we’re programmed, those couple of things push our Darwinian buttons. That if another entity does those things — particularly the eye contact, the mirroring, the gesturing, and in Siri’s case, these little Easter eggs that will say things that seem like it’s a person, that only a person will know — if it does these little things that make us feel as though it cares about us: We are very cheap dates. And we will believe that this robot not only thinks, but feels, and more than that, cares about us. And this is the part of the story that I decided not to talk about today just for reasons of time. I think that this is inappropriate — or begins to border on the inappropriate — because what are the purposes that these robots are being used for? Elder care robots, nanny robots: the two most vulnerable populations, ever it is the case, where money is to be made. I brought these robots, many of them developed in Japan, to nursing homes, and no surprise, the directors of nursing homes like it, the insurance companies are starting to like it. In Japan, they’re all over. And I have moral objections. I think there’s plenty of things for robots to do, other than to pretend to be human companions. Because they don’t understand a thing you’re saying. I want a lot of applause. And I need a lot of help, because you can see all the forces converging in this direction. There’s a new robot — I just got called by Slate magazine the other day. They’re doing a big article on this. There’s going to be more and more — I need a lot of help. There’s a lot of hype on this, and my voice should not be the only voice saying, “This is really a bad idea.” It’s a bad idea for moral, and philosophical, and ethical and kind of yucky. It’s a bad idea, because it’s just a bad idea. But it’s not a bad idea, because there aren’t the arguments for it. It’s a bad idea not because there are doctors saying “You know, we don’t like that.” Because people kind of warm to the idea. It’s very easy to get people who are thinking in a technocratic way to warm to this idea. That’s why I began with this story of the psychiatrist who says, “Why not let the robot be a psychiatrist?” Remember what he said. He said, “If you can’t tell the difference, it doesn’t matter.” And that is the rationale for the robots in nursing homes and for the nanny-bots. If the child can’t tell the difference — that it’s a robot babysitter, if it’s OK with the child to have a robot babysitter — why not let it be a robot babysitter. If the elderly person can’t tell the difference that they’re talking to a robot companion, why not let it be a robot? Lots of reasons. But you’ve got to engage. That’s the behaviorist way of thinking about human companionship. Which doesn’t have to do with human meaning. So what actually this conversation about “Why not just put robots in wherever” is actually a very philosophical conversation about “Do we care about meaning?” Because, believe me, these robots can seem to be very engaged with you, and really they, just like Siri, can seem to be very engaged with you and really don’t understand a word of what you’re saying. So that’s why I think these Apple ads are so culturally interesting and so incredibly important. Because they are teaching us how to have these “as if” conversations. You’re teaching us how to have fun in these “as if” conversations when really we’re talking to the air. And it’s OK, because beautiful movie stars, sexy people, are having them. And it’s OK, and it’s kind of the next step into it being OK.

Q: Several questions about politics. Do we think that this lack of conversation is contributing to the division?

A: Absolutely. Absolutely contributing to politics. Because if you get used to a conversation that is really a connection and you get used to talking in little sips, we’re sort of dumbing ourselves down, because you expect a fast response, so you ask a simple question. In my research, I actually track how people start asking simpler questions just so they can get a quick response. I document that. I’ve been looking at this for a decade. Then you are not that surprised when that’s what politicians start to do. We say we want a national conversation on health care. And then it turns out that that national conversation is a bunch of people lobbing sound bites at each other without really engaging on the facts, or figures or numbers, or they’re not even talking about the same thing. And they just have quick answers so as not to really address the fundamentals. And the whole conversation is to not to address the fundamentals or to have a national conversation about voter suppression, but that just turns out to be a conversation about whether or not to have it, or whatever. And we have sort of gotten used to that, I think, because we’re doing that to each other in the workplace. So I think we get into habits of talking in sips.

—Transcribed by Jen Bentley and Yemi Falodun

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