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digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

Interview Sherry Turkle


A psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Turkle's forthcoming book is Alone Together. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 22, 2009.

There seems to be a mass of cheerleaders out there who are celebrating this digital revolution, particularly in education.

I think that we live in techno-enthusiastic times. We celebrate our technologies because people are frightened by the world we've made. The economy isn't going right; there's global warming. In times like that, people imagine science and technology will be able to get it right.

“Many students were trained that a good presentation is a PowerPoint -- bam-bam. It's very hard for them to have a kind of quietness in their thinking where one thing can lead to another and build and build.”

In the area of education, it calms people to think that technology will be a salvation. It turns out that it's not so simple. Technology can be applied in good ways and bad. It's not the panacea. It depends how; it depends what. It depends how rich you are, what other things you have going for you. It's a very complicated story. But I definitely think that we're at a moment when nostalgia for things that we once got right is coded as Luddite-ism.

I see part of my role in this conversation as giving nostalgia a good name. If something worked and was helpful to parents, teachers, children, that thing should be celebrated and brought forward, insofar as we can. It's not to say that technology is bad -- robots, cell phones, computers, the Web. The much harder work is figuring out what is their place. That turns out to be very complicated.

You can't put something in its place unless you really have a set of values that you're working from. Do we want children to have social skills, to be able to just look at each other face to face and negotiate and have a conversation and be comfortable in groups? Is this a value that we have in our educational system? Well, if so, a little less Net time, s'il vous plait. Technology challenges us to assert our human values, which means that first of all, we have to figure out what they are.

What is this moment we're in? Can you define it?

We are at a point where the fact that something is simulated does not, for this generation, make it second best, and that leads to some problems.

This is really the first generation that grew up with simulation to the point that they see simulation as a virtue and have a very hard time identifying where reality slips away from simulation, often in subtle ways.

I think when you have a generation that doesn't see simulation as second best, doesn't know what's behind simulation and the programming that goes into simulation, but just takes simulation at interface value, you really have a set up for a very problematic political, among other things, set of issues.

The turning point was the introduction of the Mac in 1984, because the Macintosh said you don't have to look under the interface we give you; you can just be at the interface. And so that's when you start getting into terrible trouble with simulation, because you're so dependent on it. You don't know how it works, and there begins to be slippage between the simulated and the real.

Children who loved to program are now absent. People talking about computers in education for the most part [are] talking about children using computer tools. They're not talking about understanding this technology.

What would be different if we had a generation of kids who did look under the hood?

I think that when I say "look under the hood," there are levels and levels, and I certainly am not advocating that everybody has to become a specialist in chip design. But I think not understanding how to write a simple program -- things are built out of simple programs to more complex programs, and these programs are cultural creations, cultural constructions; you can change the program -- I think that has been a shift that's not all to the good.

Education has dropped that out of the curriculum. The most used program in computers and education is PowerPoint. What are you learning about the nature of the medium by knowing how do to a great PowerPoint presentation? Nothing. It certainly doesn't teach you how to think critically about living in a culture of simulation.

[And there are consequences to this.]

I think we're at a robotic moment where a great many people are very open to having either agents on a computer screen or robots, if they could get fancy enough, really serve as everything from teachers to nannies and company for the elderly and for children -- big push for this in Japan.

I think we suffer in that willingness to have a program that somehow knows how to do a little back and forth with us, in our willingness to be seduced into relationships with these inanimate beings. Part of it is really because we don't have in mind the nature of the programming in these agents, because they're so fancy, they're so lovely, they're so animated.

In fact, if people knew a little more about programming, they would at least have the tools to think there's nobody home. If I'm pouring out my heart to this entity, it's not understanding a word I'm saying. And I think as the robots, as the screen representations of empathic behavior become more sophisticated, we're raising a generation that needs to be far better prepared to know what's appropriate and not appropriate with these machines.

Are you including in that notion someone who says that they are really connecting in Second Life with another avatar in a deep and meaningful way?

Well, there are many kinds of relationships with a machine. When I'm talking about a relationship with a robot, I'm talking more about connecting with an avatar in Second Life behind which is not a person but a bot, an artificial intelligence.

There are bots built into Second Life and into a lot of computer games where people get used to relating to an artificial intelligence as though it's a person. And in my own studies, I find that from the point that you've been in a game where your life has been saved by a bot, you kind of feel something for that bot, and it's only three baby steps to feeling as though that bot is appropriate to confide in.

So to be clear, there are relationships with machines where your relationship is not via the machine to another person. No, I'm talking about relating to a robot, relating to a bot and being willing to take what you can get in that relationship as being sort of sufficient unto the day. And at least as I can see from interviewing children and teenagers, we're gradually moving into expanding, gradually and gradually, the realms in which we think it's appropriate to relate to a machine.

When one talks to people who are enthusiasts for technology, they often will say, look, it's not one or the other. Having robots or text messages or cell phones to deal with all the things that we don't have time or the inclination to deal with ourselves gives us more time to have meaningful connections that we really want to have.

This is a very compelling argument until you hang out for five years with teenagers who theoretically are the ones who are supposed to be having their text messages and their long conversations, too.

What I'm seeing is a generation that says consistently, "I would rather text than make a telephone call." Why? It's less risky. I can just get the information out there. I don't have to get all involved; it's more efficient. I would rather text than see somebody face to face.

There's this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated. They're hard. They involve a lot of negotiation. They're all the things that are difficult about adolescence. And adolescence is the time when people are using technology to skip and to cut corners and to not have to do some of these very hard things.

So of course people try to use everything. But a generation really is growing up that, because it's given the option to not do some of the hardest things in adolescence, are growing up without some basic skills in many cases, and that's very concerning to me.

One of the things I've found with continual connectivity is there's an anxiety of disconnection; that these teens have a kind of panic. They say things like: "I lost my iPhone; it felt like somebody died, as though I'd lost my mind. If I don't have my iPhone with me, I continue to feel it vibrating. I think about it in my locker." The technology is already part of themselves.

And with the constant possibility of connectivity, one of the things that I see is ... a very subtle movement from "I have a feeling I want to make a call" to "I want to have a feeling I need to make a call" -- in other words, people almost feeling as if they can't feel their feeling unless they're connected.

I'm hearing this all over now, so it stops being pathological if it becomes a generational style. And I think we have to ask ourselves, well, what are some of the other implications of that? Because certainly our models of what adolescents go through in order to develop independent identities did not leave room for that kind of perpetual reaching out to other people in order to feel a sense of self. That was something you hopefully went through and then developed the kind of thing where: "I have a feeling. I want to tell somebody about it."

I think of what I do as the inner history of technology, and there's shifts in the inner life that you don't necessarily see if you just say: "How often do you use your cell phone? What are you using your cell phone for? Who are you calling on your cell phone?" When you actually look at how these kids are thinking about their feelings and the relationship of their feelings to their phones, I think you see a somewhat different picture.

Tell me about the fieldwork that you've been doing.

My first work was on the one-to-one [relationship] of person with computers. And then from 1995 on, I've looked at the computer as the gateway to relationships with other people. Since 1995 I've been studying adolescents and adults in connectivity culture, which is how I think of it -- studying gaming, virtual worlds and what began just with text-based virtual worlds, and now it's moved on to things like Second Life, where you actually build worlds.

Where do you mark the "always on, always on you" culture as having started?

For kids I mark it in a very arbitrary way at 9/11, because in 2001, kids were in school without cell phones, and shortly after that, it became possible to give your kid a cell phone. That was a moment of trauma for parents, where they wanted that connection with their children. Parents were cut off, and in my interviews I find that children felt cut off. And from that point onward, having your child in constant connection became a parental virtue, and also something that children wanted.

Then very quickly for teenagers [it became] they prefer to text than talk because talking for them involves too much information, too much tension, too much awkwardness. They like the idea of a communication medium in which there doesn't need to be awkwardness. You leave before you're rejected.

Let me just say one thing that's on my mind: Many people are enthusiasts about the empowerment of children with these new technologies, and I think that of course there is an empowering side. But when I talk to kids about privacy, their MySpace account being hacked into, about people seeing their business who shouldn't see their business, they say things like, "Who would want to know about my little life?" That's very different than feeling empowered.

Facebook knows all, and it changes the rules about privacy, and you don't even know they've changed the rules until your mom tells you, and then you can't even figure out how to get it back to the old setting, and we have 13- and 14-year-olds who are trying to deal with this. They do feel as though they're out of control of what the rules are. And their response is not to feel empowered.

We filmed with some vets who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and they are being put through something called Virtual Iraq, which is essentially a game in which their trauma is actually recreated in symbolic terms in a virtual world. And therapists are saying it's incredibly effective. And let me just clarify, there is a real therapist there who --

The use of simulation in therapy that tries to re-enact moments, that has a therapist there, to me that's using simulation the way in which child therapists have traditionally used dollhouses and dolls. You ask people to talk about the dolls, their meanings, their experience, to relive things. If you can use simulation as a kind of souped-up version of that, I'm fine with that. My litmus test is whether there is someone in the room who is interpreting these experiences in terms of human meaning.

My problem is that we're very quick, I think, to say, "Oh, technology as therapy -- we can get the person out of the room." That hasn't worked in education, and I don't think it's going to work in psychotherapy.

It seems as though there's been a kind of outburst in the virtual worlds business starting with Second Life. And now, for example, IBM is creating their own virtual world, and you've got all these children's virtual worlds.

The question isn't so much why business, corporations, universities would be drawn to making their own environments. The question is, what do we really want to do there? And also [we need to be] asking the question, if we're there, where aren't we?

If you're spending three, four, five, six hours in very fun interactions on Second Life, there's got to be someplace you're not. And that someplace you're not is often with your family and friends sitting around, playing Scrabble face to face, taking a walk, watching television together in the old-fashioned way.

So the question of the brilliance of the virtual environments is never in question. I myself have studied how many interesting psychological moments and developmental moments you can have in virtual spaces. For adolescents, it's a place to have what [development psychologist and psychotherapist] Erik Erikson once called the "moratorium time," where you can fall in love and out of love with people, with ideas. You can experiment with gender; you can experiment with sexual identity. You, the extrovert, can be an introvert.

Many exciting and interesting things can happen when you are in virtual places, but for every hour of life on the screen is an hour not spent on the rest of life. And it's well past the time to take the measure of what are the costs.

You have your face-to-face [life], and you have your virtual life, and you have your Second Life -- it doesn't take into account two things: the limitation of hours in the day and the seduction of the virtual, not just for teenagers but for all of us who don't want to do all the hard things that are involved in having relationships with other people.

It's very hard to tell a colleague that they've disappointed you, that their work is a problem. It's extremely easy to send an e-mail that says that. It's very hard to tell a friend that they're not invited to your party. It's extremely easy to send an e-mail that does that. (Laughs.) There are all kinds of things that really are hard that virtuality smoothes over.

There is a reason that when you go into an organization, people are in their rooms feet away from each other, sending each other e-mail. And you ask them why, and they say, "Oh, it's more convenient; I don't have to bother anybody, waste anybody's time." It's as though everybody lived in a world where we're all wasting each other's time. So now we don't waste each other's time. You only have to get your mail when you want to.

[What about parents and teens in this new world?]

One of the interesting things about studying teenagers and adults at the same time is you see teenagers beginning to want to correct parents' seduction into the technology, because teenagers have needs that aren't being met that they're very vocal about.

For example, teenagers complain -- often these are teenagers from parents who have been divorced -- they would not have seen their mom in four days. The mom comes to pick them up at the soccer game; this is now their time with their mom, right? The mom is sitting there with the Blackberry, and until she finishes the Blackberry stuff, she doesn't look up to look at the kid. The kid's in the car, and they've driven off before the mom looks up from the Blackberry.

This infuriates children. And children are more critical of their parents' seduction by this technology than they are by their own behavior, because every kid wants to feel -- Blackberry generation or no, iPhone or no -- that their parent is there for them at the moment that they need their parent. And having all of these parents who are on the Blackberrys during pickup, this comes up so often in my interviews.

We've spent time with people who play World of Warcraft, and they're very impressive -- professionals, self-aware. They say, "Everybody dismisses the relationships we have here, but these are some of the most meaningful relationships in our life." Now, in some cases it's because they're overweight, or they're crippled, or in some other way have issues socially relating to other people, and they feel freer, unburdened of their physical self. In other cases it's because their lives don't have space in them for real face-to-face encounters a lot, and they get to spend that time that they would otherwise be at home and watching TV connecting to other people. What do you say to that?

I say good. If virtual reality gives you something that you can't get otherwise, why would I want to deny the pleasures of virtuality to someone whose life is enhanced by them? I do think that my value system is most comfortable, however, seeing virtuality and the pleasures of virtuality as a stepping stone to being able to increase your range in love and work.

I think time in virtual reality is most constructive when it causes you to reflect on your life in the physical real in a new kind of way, because in the virtual, where sort of anything is possible, very often we learn what we're missing in the real. It's almost kind of a Rorschach [inkblot test] not for what we're getting in the real but what we don't have in the real.

I just came back from Dublin, [Ireland], where my daughter is spending a gap year and, you know, sitting in a pub drinking. Well, in these games, they have virtual pubs where there's drinking. I think sitting in a pub drinking is a different experience, an experience that you wouldn't want to miss because you're busy drinking in a virtual pub with virtual Guinness stouts. I say get comfy there, and then learn how to take that next step, to bring it out into the real.

So I've often been accused of having an argument where the best virtual lives are lives lived when you're also seeing a psychotherapist who can help you bring it into the real. And I've been accused of that, but I'm not uncomfortable with the accusation.

If Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, was sitting here, he'd say you're just privileging the real over the virtual. Why can't one enhance one's range in a virtual world?

One can. But ultimately we are creatures with bodies, and the pleasures of our bodies are major. And to just say, "Well, let's raise a generation that can do it all in their heads," I say, "Why would you want to deny the pleasures of the body?," because we are creatures of our bodies, of our faces. We are evolutionarily designed to communicate at the highest level with the tiniest twitch of our voices, our faces. These are, in some ways, the highest expression of who we are as people.

I think the burden of proof is on people who want to give up the body. I've been in so many conversations online, having been a denizen of virtual worlds now since the late '80s, early '90s. I've eaten so much virtual food and drank so many virtual beers and wines and had so many virtual margaritas thrust at me. What's to talk [about]? Whereas sitting at dinner with friends, there's plenty to talk about -- how we're all feeling and how we're looking, and how the way we're looking is a window onto how we are. Now, why is it that we want to give all this up?

I've got to meet this Philip Rosedale. But I don't believe for a minute that he lives his life ... --

His hobby is flying airplanes.

Exactly. I think the technology enthusiasts -- people who make a living out of glowingly describing the world to come where we're sort of staring at our screens and being with each other virtually all the time -- these people tend to love the best food and wine and love the company of their friends and family and love to hang out in beautiful places and bring friends and have parties. I think we have to keep each other honest about what really are our greatest pleasures in life.

I think the enthusiasts would say it's all about balance: "We're not in any way suggesting that the virtual replace the real; we're just saying there's room for both." But I wonder about the issue of addiction -- the way in which we can get lost in these worlds.

Well, I don't like the metaphor of addiction for talking about any of these worlds or technologies. If you're addicted to a controlled substance, the only question you need to ask is, how can I stop using this substance, because it is closing down my ability to function?

It's a much more complicated story if you're addicted to Second Life. The question is, what are you getting on Second Life that is so compelling that you need to have it in your life, and how can we get that in your life?

For people who say, "We'll have our Second Life; we'll have our e-mail; we'll have our texting; we'll have our face to face; we'll move fluidly among these different worlds," I say show me the exemplars of people who are really moving so fluidly in these worlds.

The argument about fluidly moving between doesn't take into account the holding power of this technology. [It is] offering us something about which we are vulnerable. People want to have companionship without the demands of friendship, because companionship, particularly if you're an adolescent, can be very threatening. Here's a technology that allows that. That's very powerful holding power when we look at a generation of kids who literally cannot put it down. And there are things they are not doing developmentally because they can't put it down.

It doesn't mean that they're not growing up. It doesn't mean that they're monsters or that they're limited in every way. But there are developmental jobs that they are not doing because they are so enmeshed in the technology.

What do we want our teenagers to know? We built all of these classrooms in which they can be online all the time. So now you go into any college classroom, and everybody's typing, and it's only a fiction that they're looking at supplementary materials that will help them understand the lecture. I mean, it even changes how teachers teach.

You need to compete today with the son et lumière, -- the bright lights, big city of the Web. So even decisions that face every professor every day when they walk into class and see the laptop screens go up, and what am I going to say to my class? But it doesn't just face professors. It faces every chairman of the board that tries to have a board meeting or a trustees meeting of any sort.

Some would say most of the lectures, most of the classes, most of the books are unnecessarily long and boring, and the stuff that's great you could fit in a couple of hands, and that's the stuff they should really commit to and memorize and study. The rest of it is better short and quick and to the point. Look at haiku. It's much harder to do something quickly than it is to do something for hours. And who's to say that it's better to take your time and not be distracted?

Much of literature and poetry and film and theater, the ability to trace complicated themes through a literary work, through a poem, through a play, these pleasures will be lost to us, because these pleasures become pleasures through acquired skills. You need to learn how to listen to a poem, read a [Fyodor] Dostoevsky novel, read a Jane Austen novel.

These are pleasures of reading that demand attention to things that are long and woven and complicated. And this is something that human beings have cherished and that have brought tremendous riches. And to just say, "Well, we're of a generation that now likes it short and sweet, and haiku -- why?" Just because the technology makes it easy for us to have things that are short and sweet and haiku? In other words, it's an argument about sensibility and aesthetics that's driven by what technology wants.

[Co-founder of Wired and journalist] Kevin Kelly has written extensively about what technology wants and that technology has its own desires; technology wants certain things. And Kevin is a great friend, and he's a very, very brilliant man. When I listen to this, I say, well, I don't really care what technology wants. It's up to people to develop technologies, see what affordances the technology has. Very often these affordances tap into our vulnerabilities.

I would feel bereft if because technology wants us to read short, simple stories, we bequeath to our children a world of short, simple stories. What technology makes easy is not always what nurtures the human spirit.

Plus, it is absolutely, in my view, the wrong argument for our times, because how are we going to convince our children that we are giving them a world where the problems are more complex than ever -- education, the environment, politics is more complex [than] ever -- and also be telling them that actually you can get it in mind-size bites, little haiku bits of information; that you can kind of get it on the Web, a quick little version?

Look at a problem like the contemporary terrorist threat, rooted in social, political, cultural, religious, tribal. You need to be able to put complicated, long, historical stories together. This is not amenable to quick, quick.

To me, every part of the story about the forward thinking of the mind-size bite puts technology first, doesn't put technology in its place, and disempowers us rather than empowers us. And there's the aesthetic argument -- we turn out to be wonderful as human beings at being able to follow the complexity of meaning in other people and narratives.

By putting the premium on what's fast, it takes away from education the ability to reason with your students about complicated things. That's why they shouldn't be doing everything virtually. That's why they should come to universities and be in a community. And most important, it takes away from the future our best way of thinking about complexity, which really is to study very long stories and try to put them together. And so when I teach at MIT, I live in a world of people arguing the fast and the furious, and I don't think that it holds up.

I've been here for 20 years; I've seen the losses. There's no one who's been teaching for 25 years and doesn't think that our students aren't different now than they were then. They need to be stimulated in ways that they didn't need to be stimulated before. No, that's not good. You want them to think about hard things. You want them to think about complicated things. You don't want to be, literally, professors. I mean, if you look at changes in styles of teaching, it is driven by PowerPoint.

Henry Jenkins, who was here at MIT, talks often about the creative empowerment of this technology for kids, how they're creating the culture with this stuff and that that's a wonderful thing.

Technology makes certain things easy educationally in the classroom. That doesn't necessarily mean that those things are the most educationally valuable.

When you have the ability to easily do showy, fabulous things, you want to believe they're valuable because that would be great. I think that we always have to ask ourselves, when technology makes something easy, when its affordances allow us to do certain things, is this valuable? What are the human purposes being served? And in the classroom, what are the educational purposes being served?

For example, video games make certain things easy. A video game is a complex simulation, and in a lot of the educational games you get simulated science experiments [that] make kids feel as though they're discovering something. One of the things that happens in a simulated science experiment is the values come out right, so the experiment isn't botched; the data isn't corrupted.

How many physics experiments did you do, or chemistry, where all that was just thrown down the drain because it was contaminated? You didn't learn anything. So you went back to the textbook and saw how it should have been done.

No, in a simulated experiment, you always get a result that's smooth. But what you don't learn is the resistance of nature. You don't learn that, in fact, things do get contaminated and that the real does have that resistance to you and the real has that roughness and that that's what science is about. It's grappling with that real, which is really one of the first things a scientist needs to learn.

Also, in any kind of simulation, somebody was always there before you to program this in, to plant these discoveries in. There isn't that sense of real discovery, of you being the one that puts it together.

So psychologically, students have experience of simulation where they're missing a kind of discovery that they can get really in the physical real.

Let me say one more thing.

One of the things that has been most distressing to me in looking at K through 12 is the use of PowerPoint in the schools. It is statistically the most used piece of educational software. Students are taught that the way on how to make an argument -- to make it in bullets, to add great photos, to draw from the popular culture and show snippets of movies and snippets of things that [he or she] can grab from the Web, and funny cartoons and to kind of make a mélange, a pastiche of cropped cultural images and animations and to make a beautiful PowerPoint. And that's their presentation.

PowerPoint presentations are about simple, communicable ideas illustrated by powerful images, and there's a place for that. But that isn't the same as critical thinking. And PowerPoint is easy, and kids love to do it, and it feels good. And it simply isn't everything. You know, great books are not fancied-up PowerPoint presentations. Great books take you through an argument, show how the argument is weak, meet objections, show you a different point of view. By the time you're through with all that, you're way beyond the simplicities of PowerPoint.

We filmed in a school in the Bronx, and it was a school where kids were dropping out --

And now they're happy because they have the computers.

They're paying attention. I mean --

Because they have computers. So here's the thing about the schools. Computers are seductive; computers are appealing. There's no harm in using the seductive and appealing to draw people in, to get them in their seats, and to begin a conversation. The question is, what happens after that?

So I'm actually quite positive about all kinds of technology to get people who need to be in chairs. I'm a pragmatist. I think there's a crisis in education; I want to do what works. But after they're in their chair, the most impressive programs I've seen is where children form relationships with mentors. Now, they can be doing technology while they're having this relationship with a mentor. But kids who the system is failing don't have relationships and reasons to keep studying, learning and thinking.

Again, I'm not a Luddite. Technology is a wonderful conversation opener because it's so seductive. That doesn't mean it's where the conversation should end. It's a wonderful means of collaboration. But the collaboration is between people who are excited about the ideas. The technology is not the product. I think it's very hard to see that because teachers are overworked; they're over-stressed; there are too many kids in the class. They themselves have often lost their love of learning. They're in a situation where it's hard to develop that -- so many discipline problems, so much struggling for any resources. And the fantasy that technology will make this right is very compelling. I think the truth is that it may make it easier if we use it to do the hard jobs.

And the hard jobs are ... ?

The hard jobs in education [are] getting children to love learning, to find something in learning that fits with their life and experience and where they can find meaning in their own lives and love learning this. To see how learning can give them a better life is very important. If students don't think learning can give them a better life, there is no reason to learn. And that's a hard sell if you're not very privileged, that learning can give you a better life.

Also, I'm very struck by the use of the words "interactivity" and "collaboration" in educational discourse, as though all collaboration leads to ... goodness, and all interactivity means that exciting things are happening educationally.

You can be very interactive with a great piece of literature, sitting quietly in your room, maybe holding a pencil, but you've learned interactive skills so that you and that piece of literature are in a complex interaction. You do not have to have things exploding on the screen and people coming out to you and talking to you and shaking your hand and asking you to go -- we're taking human imagination out of our conversation about interactivity. And interactivity is not always an end in itself. And collaboration is not always an end in itself.

I think that when you look at why that's happening, it's because that's what the technology kind of puts in in advance. Computer games are interactive, and you're always moving back and forth. And computer games are collaborative; you can be playing with people all over the world. Well, it turns out, it's highly overrated. Been there, done that. Good sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn't an education make, in my point of view.

What about multitasking?

Because technology makes it easy, we've all wanted to think it is good for us, a new kind of thinking, an expansion of our ability to reason and cycle through complicated things -- do more and be more efficient. Unfortunately, the new research is coming in that says when you multitask, everything gets done a little worse.

Let me just speak of my own experience as a writer. I work on a networked computer, and I have it on a word-processing program, and I'm writing and I'm thinking, and I have my interviews all around. And I'm trying to make a hard point, and it's hard, and I hit my e-mail, and I do a little e-mail. You know, 20 minutes passes; a half hour passes; 10 minutes passes. And I've lost my thought. And I go back to the writing. And once again, when it's hard, I hit Safari and I'm Googling somebody; I'm checking if my books are selling on Amazon.

I'm doing every little thing to break up the difficult. And in my interviewing I find that I am not alone, that the pull to do a lot of things when something is hard is a kind of universal seduction. And it does not make for better writing.

I talk to my students about this a lot. Many of them say, what's the difference? You get up; you stretch; you have a cup of coffee. What about that? There is a difference. When you get up and stretch and take a walk around the block, you can stay with your problem. You can clear your mind; you can move your body. You can stay with the thing, whereas if you're answering an e-mail about scheduling baby-sitters or quickly writing a letter of recommendation, you've lost your problem.

I think we're getting ourselves out of the habit of just staying with something hard. Some intellectual problems are quite hard, and they need full attention. And the more you hear educational specialists talking about multitasking as though it's a big plus, the more I think we seduce ourselves out of what many people, when they actually get to doing a piece of hard work, really know what the truth is.

So how does this manifest itself in your students? How are they different, and what do you -- ?

I teach at MIT. I teach the most brilliant students in the world. But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes, because they need to be taught how to make a sustained, complicated argument on a hard, cultural, historical, psychological point.

Many of them were trained that a good presentation is a PowerPoint presentation -- you know, bam-bam-bam -- it's very hard for them to have a kind of quietness, a stillness in their thinking where one thing can actually lead to another and build and build and build and build.

I don't blame them. I think that there really is a change in the educational sensibility that they've come up with. I think it's for a generation of professors to not be intimidated and say, "Oh, this must be the way of the future," but to say: "Look, there really are important things you cannot think about unless you're only thinking about one thing at a time. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things. And there's some kind of arguments you cannot make unless you're willing to take something from beginning to end."

When you look out and see that sea of students in front of you, to what degree do you think they actually are Googling you, Googling their possible new boyfriend --

Every professor who looks out onto a sea of students these days knows that there's e-mail, Wikipedia, Facebook, Googling me, Googling them, Googling their next-door neighbor -- that that's happening in the classroom. And every professor makes a different call, and often we change our calls from one class to another and from one semester to another.

Very often now I will start my class and say: "You know, this really is not about more information. What we're doing in class is learning how to think together, and I need your full attention, and I want you to be really thinking with me. I want you to be interrupting me; I want you to be having new ideas. But I don't really want you to be having new ideas because there's some new piece of information you found out on the Web. So no notebook laptops. If you have a note, you need to take a piece of paper." And then I've had people say, "Oh, well;" then they'll be doodling. And I think doodling is actually kind of interesting. I think doodling is a way in which people visually represent in some way something they're hearing. I'm comfortable with doodling. I don't get upset if people doodle.

It's going to be because there's something about my reasoning or something about your reading and experience that you've thought about before coming here that you want to contribute. And that's pretty much how I'm handling it now.

And lectures?

Well, I've changed my lecture style so that it is really more about showing them how to think. I say: "These lectures are not about the communication of content. I'm going to be thinking through complicated material. I'm going to be asking for input from you. I'm going to be showing you how to think through a problem. My lectures are designed to help you think through a problem, and there's really no new information that's required to both watch me do that and for you to participate in helping me do that, because if I'm thinking in a way you think is problematic, I will call on you, and we can take it back and think through a different way."

So I think it's changed my teaching style in a sense that I want to get rid of the fantasy that there's something in Wikipedia or on the Web that's going to turn this all around. They're paying so much money for this education, and I think I have something very special to offer, and I want them to be there.

But listen, I feel the same way about my colleagues. You go to a conference, and the person on your left is downloading images from The New Yorker that they want to use in their presentation, the person to the right is doing their e-mail on their Blackberry, and the speaker knows that they're speaking to people who are really otherwise occupied.

So I don't want to lay this on my students. I think we're living in a culture where we're really not sure what kind of attention we owe each other. People put their cell phones on the table now. They don't turn them off. One of my students talked about the first time he was walking with friends, and they received a cell phone call, and they took the call. And he said: "What was I, on pause? I felt I was being put on pause." I think that we're socially negotiating what kind of attention we feel we owe each other.

I have come to feel that in order for me to love my job, I'm willing to change the nature of what I present in order to honestly be able to say to students: "What I'm here to do with you is to think about how to think about a problem. I need your full attention. There's no more information you need. Everybody off the Web." And then it's for me to make sure I can make good on that promise.

I don't think of myself so much as old school as feeling that technology has its place. And there were some very good things about thinking together with a speaker and not talking to each other about free associations and contradictions to what the speaker is saying. And I think it goes along with a kind of lack of willingness to hear a complicated point out to the end.

When I've tried to analyze the cross-channel conversations, which are so scintillating and smart and witty and fun, they often don't allow a complicated point to mature, because while you're making a complicated point, you can say things that can be easily refuted, or, you know, it needs to mature.

We're becoming quite intolerant of letting each other think complicated things. I don't think this serves our humans needs, because the problems we're facing are quite complicated.

I have complicated ideas about when to use technology in education. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For different students it's good in different ways. And we're just becoming like, "Sherry, is it good, or is it bad?" Well, sometimes it depends on the kid. These are complicated points, and I think we need to hear each other out.

Part of hearing each other out, implicit in that is the ability to be still, right?

Yes. To hear someone else out, you need to be able to be still for a while and pay attention to something other than your immediate needs. So if we're living in a moment when you can be in seven different places at once, and you can have seven different conversations at once on a back channel here, on a phone here, on a laptop, how do we save stillness? How threatened is it? How do we regain it?

Erik Erikson is a great American psychologist who wrote a great deal about adolescence and identity, and he talks about the need for stillness in order to fully develop and to discover your identity and become who you need to become and think what you need to think. And I think stillness is one of the great things in jeopardy.

I think that part of K through 12 education now should be to give students a place for this kind of stillness.

Thoreau, in writing about Walden, lists the three things that he feels the experience is teaching him, and for him to develop fully as the man he wants to become. He wants to live deliberately; he wants to live in his life; and he wants to live with no sense of resignation. But on all of those dimensions, I feel that we're taking away from ourselves the things that Thoreau thought were so essential to discovering an identity.

We're not deliberate; we're bombarded. We have no stillness; we have resignation. Kids say: "Well, it has to be this way; we have no other way to live. We're not living fully in our lives. We're living a little in our lives and a little bit in our Facebook lives." You know, you put up a different life, you put up a different person. So it's not to be romantic about Thoreau, but I think he did write, as Erikson wrote, about the need for stillness; to be deliberate; to live in your life and to never feel that you're just resigned to how things need to be.

What are your thoughts on the dearth-of-evidence argument? Many people say that there's no evidence to show technology is changing us in ways that are worrisome. The jury's still out.

The saying that we know too little to make a judgment about technology has, as its starting point, that we know nothing about human development, or that somehow the game has completely changed now that we have a technology to put in its place.

I wrote a book that was a collection of asking people what was the object that brought you into science. I asked for an object, and people wrote about people. They started with the object, and two sentences later they're talking about the teacher that introduced them to the object. So we know that asking about people's most profound learning experience brings people right to the relationships with people.

So the idea that now we're going to bring in technology and we can de-people our universe and give people video games to play with or give people robots that will be tutors, it doesn't take into account what we know about ourselves as people.

The best example of this over the past I'd say five years or so ... has been the cultural infatuation with multitasking. And finally the experiments are coming in -- the careful, controlled experiments about how when you multitask, there's a degradation of all function. Did we need to really go through 10 years of drinking the Kool-Aid on the educational wonders of multitasking and the forgetting about everything we knew about what it takes to really accomplish something hard?

I think we could have been a lot more measured as educators in our infatuation with multitasking. And again, we live in techno-enthusiastic times, and we want what technology makes easy to be good for us. And it just isn't always. Not that it never is, but it isn't always.

There's a quote you gave me at one point from Shakespeare --

The Shakespeare quote is, "We are consumed by that which we are nourished by" [sic]. [Editor's note: Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXIII -- "Consumed with that which it was nourished by."]

I think when we're texting, on the phone, doing your e-mail, getting information, the experience is of being filled up. And that feels good. We assume that it is nourishing in the sense of taking us to a place we want to go. And I think that we are going to start to learn that in our enthusiasms and in our fascinations, we can also be flattened and depleted by what perhaps was once nourishing us, but which can't be a steady diet, because speaking for myself, if all I do is my e-mail, my calendar and my searches, ... I feel great; I feel like a master of the universe. And then it's the end of the day, I've been busy all day, and I haven't thought about anything hard, and I have been consumed by the technologies that were there and that had the power to nourish me.

The point is we're really at the very beginning of learning how to use this technology in the ways that are the most nourishing and sustaining. We're going to slowly find our balance, but I think it's going to take time, and I think the first discipline is to think of us in the early days so that we're not so quick to -- (snaps fingers) -- yes, no, on, off, good, good, and to just kind of take it slowly and not feel that we need to throw out the virtues of deliberateness, living in life, stillness, solitude.

There is a wonderful Freudian formulation, which is that loneliness is failed solitude. In many ways, we are forgetting the intellectual and emotional value of solitude. You're not lonely in solitude. You're only lonely if you forget how to use solitude to replenish yourself and to learn. And you don't want a generation that experiences solitude as loneliness. And that is something to be concerned about, because if kids feel that they need to be connected in order to be themselves, that's quite unhealthy. They'll always feel lonely, because the connections that they're forming are not going to give them what they seek.

posted February 2, 2010

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