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How your cellphone is silently disrupting your social life

November 27, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Can a cellphone reduce the amount of empathy we feel for each other? In her new book “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle argues that technology is creating the illusion of togetherness, while reducing actual communication and connection. She joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss her ideas for increasing interaction, both using in technology and without.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, are we still communicating in person in our hyper-connected world?

This is the major concern of our latest add to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

In “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology continues her exploration of the evolving relationship between technology and humans.

She recently sat down with Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sherry Turkle, welcome to you.

SHERRY TURKLE, Author, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”: Pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: It occurs to me we’re having a conversation about the lack of conversations in our lives, right?

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes, we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you see some — a very specific problem, a loss of empathy, of our ability to empathize with others. Explain that.

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, it’s very typical that when two people are having lunch, they put a phone on the table between them.

And all the research shows that the presence of that phone will do two things to the conversation. It will make the conversation go to trivial matters, and it will decrease the amount of empathy that the two people in the conversation feel toward each other. That phone is a signal that either of us can put our attention elsewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if we don’t look at it?

SHERRY TURKLE: Even a silent phone disconnects us.

And so it’s that feeling that we all are always potentially elsewhere that is cutting us off. And we’re finding ways around conversation, the kind of conversation that’s open-ended, where you give time for another person to sort of take a tangent and not go to a phone if there’s a little bit of a lapse.

And those are the kinds of conversations where empathy is born, where intimacy is born. And those are the conversations we’re not having with each other and with our kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I’m wondering if the instruments, the technology…

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … kind of plays, just plays to the sort of natural human anxiety over talking to one another, or the fear of human contact that we might have always had, and the new technology helps that?

SHERRY TURKLE: Well, in my book, I argue that we’re vulnerable to these technologies.

There’s a 40 percent decline in all markers for empathy among college students, with most of it taking place in the past 10 years. That’s not OK. So, even if — I mean, our phones do play to our natural nervousness about being vulnerable to each other, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t we can’t pull ourselves together, and say — we need to talk to each because it’s in conversation, the most human and humanizing thing that we do, that empathy is born, that intimacy is born, that relationship is born.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see these new kinds of gadgets as sort of exponentially different from other technology? Isn’t it also the case that new technology as it’s come along, from the technology of the book…

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … that — Socrates talking about, or the telephone, or the television, of course, the…

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … the couch potato, the idea that we’re just sort of focused? Now we look at the television as something we almost share, right?

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.

Well, this technology and the reason this technology took my attention so much is that it does something new, which is that we have the illusion that we’re with each other even as I’m going like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re sharing, but we’re not really engaged.

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes.

We treat it as though it’s an accessory that has no psychological impact. I just go like this, and I’m with you, but I’m also with my phone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

SHERRY TURKLE: And, actually, that gesture has tremendous psychological effect.

But because we’re sort of with each other all the time, it’s an always-on, always-on-you technology, we can interrupt the flow of life, but somehow not take it seriously. And in the latest Pew study, 89 percent of Americans said that they interrupted their last social encounter by looking at a phone. And 82 percent of them said that it deteriorated the conversation.

So we’re — my favorite line in my book, kind of author’s choice…

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

SHERRY TURKLE: … is, technology — technology makes us forget what we know about life.

We know we’re doing something that’s — that’s not good, put your hand up in somebody’s face and say, excuse me, I just need to interrupt this conversation for a moment, and yet we do it anyway.

JEFFREY BROWN: How far do you want to push this, in terms of turning off, tuning out, unplugging, you know, not multitasking? How far do you push it? What do you want people to do?

SHERRY TURKLE: I want people to take action and reclaim conversation in the following ways.

This book is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation. If you’re using technology in a way that opens out conversation in your family, with your friends, with people you care about, I’m for that. But if you’re using technology to silence the conversations with the people around you, then you have to create sacred spaces in your home, the kitchen, the dining room, the car.

For me, the car is ground zero in the war to reclaim conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. You call that a sacred place.

SHERRY TURKLE: I call it a sacred space.

At work, conversation increases productivity. And yet people go into work, put on their headphones. In one interview, somebody called it — they become pilots in their own cockpits. They put on their earphones, they lay out their phones, they put — open up their computers, and they convince themselves that they’re most productive when they’re focused on their e-mail, when, really, they’re ignoring the cafeteria, the watercooler, the meetings with colleagues, the times when really the creativity, collaboration happens.

Create sacred spaces in the workplace as well. Classrooms, five years ago, professors would say, I don’t want be a nanny to my students. They can do whatever they want. Now professors are saying, put away that laptop, because studies show that it not only takes away the attention of the person who’s on the laptop from the class, but everyone around them. There’s like a circle around that person that’s distracted and not paying attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you hopeful?

SHERRY TURKLE: I’m very hopeful.

Young people realize that something is amiss. You know, there’s a generation that fell in love with their phones, and it’s very hard for them to see that there’s a problem. But young people are desperate for the attention of their parents, who are really not paying attention to them.

That’s one of the surprises in the research, that’s it’s not young people who are smitten with their phones. It’s their parents who are not paying attention to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And teaching them that behavior.

SHERRY TURKLE: Yes, and teaching them that behavior.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new book is “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,”

Sherry Turkle, thank you.

SHERRY TURKLE: Thank you.

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