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College Quarterly
Fall 2015 - Volume 18 Number 4
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
Sherry Turkle

New York, NY: Penguin, 2015

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Sherry Terkle is an accomplished clinical psychologist and sociologist. She has a PhD from Harvard and holds a named professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is an expert in human/technology interactions. She specializes in what she calls the “subjective side” of human relations with computers and digital technology. She speaks with authority not only about psychoanalysis and the thought of such luminaries as Freud and Lacan, but also about changes in human personality, identity and the relationships among people and between people and machines. She has become increasingly critical of technological devices. She identified some of their adverse effects in a very influential book (Turkle, 2011) and has even advanced the opinion that it might be in our individual and collective interests to limit our use of and reliance upon them.

As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking. – Dwight Macdonald, 1957

With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos ... – Jacob Weisberg, 2016

Though some somewhat defensive technophiles have accused her of producing a “neo-Luddite screed about how technology is terrible and making us all stupid and anti-social” (Masnick, 2015), more reliable sources insist that she is “not a Luddite.” Her work does not amount either to dystopian fear-mongering or to an attempt to lead an analogue counter-revolution. In the current heated debate about electronic communications, robotics and allegedly artificial “intelligence,” Turkle is commonly misrepresented and subjected to “derogatory accusations of Luddism” for merely making “moderate calls for caution and temperance” in the use of search engines and social media. She does not advocate destroying or even abstaining from using computers (McGrady & Packer, 2014).

[Full disclosure # 1: as a grateful beneficiary of work of Edward Thompson, I do not regard “Luddism” as a derogatory term; in fact, I am sure that most people who subject those admirable pre-Victorian insurrectionists, followers of General Ned Ludd and proud members of the “Army of Redressers” to “the enormous condescension of humanity” (Thompson, 1968, p. 6) wouldn’t recognize a Luddite if she committed sabotage by tossing a wooden shoe into their feedback loops, causing their hard wires to go limp and their virtual systems to crash.]

Reclaiming Conversation is by no means Turkle’s first foray into the world of human-machine connections. She began with The Second Self (1984), continued with Life on the Screen (1995) and built toward the publication of Alone Together (2011), which was a remarkable (and remarkably controversial) book that explored the effects of electronic communications on the process of human maturation. Child and adolescent development, she argued, could suffer from a technologically induced degradation of human relationships, an inauthentic sense of self, an inability to enjoy the satisfactions of solitude, as well as a decline in the capacity for empathy. She provided empirical evidence for her persuasive argument that disembodied virtual relationships even (or especially) with intimate family members and friends could have harmful consequences.

Turkle’s main argument was that people who use electronic communications to control the world on the problematic presumption that knowledge is power rather quickly find not only that they do not achieve what’s preciously called “mastery” over the vastly expanding universe of information, but that they are increasingly controlled by their devices. Whether or not the term is clinically appropriate, it wasn’t included in the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2014), which provides mental health professionals with the most up-to-date inventory of accepted mental diseases and disorders. Still, Internet addiction disorder (also called Problematic Internet Use (PIU), Compulsive Internet Use (CIU) or, more trendily, iDisorder nonetheless, leads to much professional and public concern that members of our families, friends, colleagues and others seem addicted to their devices to the point where they noticeably interfere with the conduct of their daily lives (Cash, 2012)..

Sherry Turkle is a sceptic who was once a believer. A clinical psychologist among industry shills and literary hand-wringers, an empiricist among cherry-picking anecdotalists, a moderate among extremists, a realist among fantasists, a humanist but not a Luddite: a grown-up. – Jonathan Franzen

In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle goes several steps beyond critique. Most of us have already twigged to the fact that technological innovation in communications is associated with the decline of ... well, communication. The abandonment of letter writing in favour of 140-character tweets, the preference for online journals and the decline of morning reading matter in exchange for oxymoronic online newspapers are more than matched by the gasps and groans of disbelief when fully enrolled postsecondary students are asked to read a few hundred pages of an actual book or write a mid-term essay of a scant 10-15 pages.

Add to this evidence of neuronal damage and intimations of fundamental brain change (never mind sight problems and carpel-tunnel syndrome) as a result of workers being fixated on desk-top screens while stuck, like gerbils, at “work stations” for hours at a time, and we probably do not need much convincing (though nicely coloured images of our boss’s fMRIs and CAT scans might be pleasant) that something is awry.

As a form of therapy for our various preliminary diagnoses and fully elaborated pathologies, Sherry Turkle has some reassuring suggestions. Not unlike Ellen Rose’s excellent essay on reflection (Rose, 2013; Doughty, 2015), Turkle offers comfort and confidence that it is not too late to restore our communicative competence. Like Rose, as well, she recommends a measure of solitude. What the division of labour, the fragmentation of our social roles and the anonymity imposed by urbanization and industrialization did for our existence as members of folk societies, electronic software is doing to us today. Instead of sociological fragmentation, however, we are experiencing psychological disintegration.

Our redemption, however, is available as a result of our capacity to witness our own psychological disintegration in what’s now known as “real time.” What’s more, we are not so far gone that we cannot liberate ourselves from the most toxic effects of the current version of the human condition, perhaps best defined as a simulacrum of social relations. Our “smartphones” can be turned off ... if only we can convince ourselves that we are smarter than them, not an easy task.

Some critics have chided Turkle for her restraint. Her criticisms of digital devices involve more than her commendable psychological insights and her well-articulated concerns about personal development. As Jonathan Franzen (2015) has pointed out “Turkle shies from the more radical implications of her findings.” Digital technology has profound repercussions that are being felt in the larger global economy, in terms of the decline of privacy, the development of both public and private sector surveillance and, conversely, of propaganda.

We have known (or ought to have known) that there is no such thing as value-neutral technology. As Franzen says: “Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.” And that includes, in college curriculum, pedagogy, research practices, and, faculty assessment and working conditions as well.

Because she is a “grown-up,” Turkle not only refrains from delivering the coup-de-grace, but she stays behind the lines hoping that precisely the same mechanisms that led to our current circumstances can be used to conduct a strategic retreat. She seems to have confidence that market mechanisms will save us, that we will learn to limit our engagement with the Internet, and that we may come to understand that we can even make consumer choices that will force the technology industries to create not just technically, but also psychologically, socially and even morally better products.

I am not completely convinced that Turkle is right about the capacity of consumer dollars to dictate the development of the computer market according to the uncertain rules of “supply-and-demand” that form the problematic core of contemporary economic ideology. On the other hand, barring the kind of alien power play that knocked the stuffing out of petroleum extraction…we might not have much choice.

[Full disclosure # 2: I do not now possess, never have I ever possessed, nor am I likely ever to possess a mobile phone—smart, merely charming or incredibly stupid. So, I cannot fully empathize with the withdrawal pains of Internet addicts who wish to exhibit finger-tip dexterity, but who also want to maintain a measure of more-or-less “conscious” control of what they call their “minds.” At the same time, I do know what it is to abstain from tobacco smoking, so I am not completely insensitive; besides, as Turkle reminds us, even Steve Jobs banned smartphones at the dinner table; so, if a clever fellow like him could do it, perhaps so can we.]

Coda

Almost 50 years ago, I opened a fresh edition of The Review of Metaphysics and fixed on an article by Hubert Dreyfus (1967). With a strong background in phenomenology and a thorough grounding in ontology and epistemology, Dreyfus was able to convince me of the folly of speaking of “artificial intelligence” or AI. The debate is ongoing, but I still have not found a satisfactory rebuttal of his arguments about AI. His claim that AI rests upon faulty assumptions does not, of course, deny the astonishing computational capacities of computers; however, his insistence that intelligence is something more than the ability to follow logical rules in the processing of data remains, in my opinion, unrefuted.

When, for example, I watched the much-discussed television game show “Jeopardy” when it pitted an IBM computer called, of course, “Watson” in its struggle for supremacy over two human contestants, the trick was simplicity itself. In questions requiring a simple bit of information, the answer was supplied “artificially” by the machine faster than it could be from the merely human organisms; when, however, judgement or interpretation were needed, the humans prevailed (Best, 2015). Now, of course, the programmers are busy making improvements and no doubt will continue to plug in more data, more metrics, more big data mining techniques and (who knows?) maybe even trick its human creators that it has passed the Turing Test (Turing, 1950); but intelligence?.

Dreyfus, I should add, is also considered a “Luddite,” but he is not the first techno-sceptic to see the utility of electronic communication. His courses on “Heidegger,” “Heidegger’s Being and Time,” “Existentialism in Literature and Film,” and on “Man, God and Society” are available online (Dreyfus, 2011). According to the Los Angeles Times, he has “cracked the top 20” and, became “the iTunes U equivalent of an indie rocker with a cult following” (Quinn, 2007). Just because you’re a Luddite doesn’t mean you do not see the advantages of technology. It just means you also know the disadvantages and think you can manage the difference.

References

Aboujaoude, E. (2010). Problematic Internet use: An overview. World Psychiatry 9(2), 85-90. PMID: 20671890.

American Psychiatric Association. (2014). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fifth edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA.

Behr, R. (2011, January 30). Masnick, M. (2015, October 22). Techdirt reading list: Smarter than you think. Retrieved October 24, 2015 from https://www.techdirt.com/blog/?tag=sherry+turkle.

Best, J. (2013, September 10). IBM Watson: The inside story of how the jeopardy-winning supercomputer was born and what it wants to do next. Retrieved November 2, 2014 from http://www.techrepublic.com/article/ibm-watson-the-inside-story-of-how-the-jeopardy-winning-supercomputer-was-born-and-what-it-wants-to-do-next/

Cash, H., Rae, C. D., Steel, A. H., & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet addiction: A brief summary of research and practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews 8(4), 292-298. doi: 10.2174/157340012803520513.

Doughty, H. A. (2015). Review of On reflection by Ellen Rose. The College Quarterly 18(3). Available at http://collegequarterly.ca/2015-vol18-num03-summer/doughty2.html

Dreyfus, H. (1967). Why computers must have bodies in order to be intelligent. The Review of Metaphysics 21(1), pp. 13-32.

Dreyfus, H. (2011). Existentialism with Hubert Dreyfus: Four free philosophy courses. Available at http://www.openculture.com/2011/01/existentialism_with_hubert_dreyfus_four_free_courses.html

Franzen, J. (2015, September 28). Sherry Turkle’s ‘Reclaiming Conversation.’ New York Times. Retrieved September 29, 2015 from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/books/review/jonathan-franzen-reviews-sherry-turkle-reclaiming-conversation.html

McGrady, R. and J. Packer, (2014). Neo-Luddites. In K. Harvey (Ed.) Encyclopedia of social media and politics: Vol. 2 (p. 785). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Reference.

Quinn, M. (2007, November 24). The iPod lecture circuit. Retrieved September 11, 2015 from http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-podclass24nov24-story.html

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computer machinery and intelligence. Mind 59, No. 236. Available at http://www.turing.org.uk/scrapbook/test.html

Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Turkle. S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology, Modern Political Thought and Globalization at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com