Game of Phones

An MIT prof explores the science behind our screen addictions.

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Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle

Published by Penguin Books, 436 pages, $17

With an endowed chair at MIT and a long connection to technology, psychologist Sherry Turkle is the perfect person to take a critical look at its tyrannical usurpation of our lives and relationships. Her latest book, now available in paperback, explores how that blazing rectangle has taken over the crucial human contact afforded by face-to-face conversation. Increasingly, ubiquitously, even people sitting together are isolated from one another, tapping at their phones on some Here-But-Elsewhere planet. Meanwhile, good old solitude—with its chance for reflection—is likewise being replaced by impatient gadget-gazing. And Turkle notes that parents who should be encouraging children to develop empathy are app-tapping, blatantly or surreptitiously, even as they admonish their kids to put their phones away. It almost seems babies are born holding a smartphone, soon to enter the toxic tunnel of texting.

Turkle’s research and interviews urge reflection on technology’s worrisome effects. Some people interviewed admit their digital addiction and experiment with what proves to be a refreshing return to conversation. Of course, many are soothed by Siri’s seeming warmth and curiosity, though we’re reminded that “she” is not an actual person with true knowledge of us to whom we can reciprocally relate. And while online dating opens possibilities, the fictions of an idealized self it invites can distort an actual relationship. Turkle makes a fierce case for that essential human connection—talking together, here and now.

From Page 166: We have learned that people who would never allow themselves to be bullies in person feel free to be aggressive and vulgar online. The presence of a face and a voice reminds us that we are talking to a person. Rules of civility usually apply. But when we communicate on screens, we experience a kind of disinhibition. Research tells us that social media decrease self-control just as they cause a momentary spike in self-confidence. This means that online we are tempted to behave in ways that part of us knows will hurt others, but we seem to stop caring.


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