When texting replaces talking

Being hooked on mobile phones has undesirable consequences, says American sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle in her new book

RECLAIMING CONVERSATION: THE POWER OF TALK IN A DIGITAL AGE

By Sherry Turkle

Penguin Press New York/Paperback/ 436 pages/$33.12 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 302.2242 TUR

One day at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at a seminar on science, technology and the memoir, American sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle was listening to some of her students recall their early years, which were rife with abuse, abandonment and other abject struggles.

Turkle takes in only 20 students for this course, so it was plain for all to see that in the midst of the painful sharing, the other students were texting away on their cellphones.

  • Just a minute

    The good

    1. For more than 40 years, American sociologist, psychologist and teacher Sherry Turkle has studied how technology affects the way people think and behave. She has such a sure grasp of her subject that she is able to show, lucidly and compellingly, where its original parameters lay, why and how far these have expanded since and what all that bodes for the future.

    Of course, to top it all, her training in three distinct disciplines enables her to wax authoritatively on and draw deeply from those diverse wells of thought.

    All of which add up to a rich reading experience.

    2. Turkle is the queen of the punchline, nailing every point she has to make in a pithy one-liner. That makes her message resonant and her case against an over-reliance on technology persuasive.

    In fact, she is so sharp and succinct in the way she communicates that if you read only the first 80 pages of this 436-page book, you would have a strong sense of all the issues plaguing the effectiveness of communications today.

    3. As a popular lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who likes interacting with her students within and outside the classroom, she has her ear close to the ground and makes the most of this by sharing exactly what Generation Z think of themselves and the world in this book. She augments this by making many among her students guinea pigs for her thought experiments.

    The bad

    1. Turkle has researched her subject extensively, so her constant repetition of key points is head-scratching. It is as if she had initially written this book as a few essays and then rewritten each of these essays from a slightly different angle, and then combined all the revised chapters into this book.

    For the most part, it does not suffer from such reiteration, but some chapters do read as if Turkle had stretched her material a bridge too far.

    Case in point: Her treatise on friendship, which begins on page 137, keeps recycling points made in her first two chapters.

    2. Her point of view is decidedly American-centric; she says as much in the book at one point. While the United States may be the territory she knows best, it is no longer the undisputed cultural centre of the world. So Turkle would have given her book more intellectual heft if she had broadened her discussion to include how those in, say, Eastern cultures deal with information overload.

    The iffy

    1. She hardly pauses to consider the probability that most people today eschew face-to-face chats simply because the wealth of information online has removed much of the need to draw basic information out of people via sit-down conversations.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

    1 Why are many people more willing to text than talk to others face to face these days?

    2 Why is multi-tasking, ultimately, not at all productive?

    3 Why would spending more time alone with your thoughts be most rewarding?

    4 How could you best turn an acquaintance into a friend?

    5 Why should you consciously uncouple yourself from your laptop and smartphone at least once a week?

  • Join the conversation on Jan 27

    The Big Read Meet is known for its lively and enlightening chats among readers from all walks of life.

    But instead of taking our word for it, why not join them and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai for such meaningful conversation on Jan 27 at 6.30pm in the Central Public Library at Basement 1, National Library Board head- quarters, 100 Victoria Street.

    The book for discussion is Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle.

    Sign up for it at a NLB e-Kiosk or click on www.nlb.gov. sg/golibrary, look for The Big Read Meet and follow the steps there.

    If you cannot make it then, but want to share your views on Turkle's book, e-mail your thoughts in not more than 100 words to suk@sph.com.sg.

    The best contributions will be published on The Big Read page.

The thing is, she was well used to all their "phubbing", an accepted term for continuing to read and reply to messages on their cellphones while doing something else.

The saving grace, she recalls in her new book Reclaiming Conversation, was that the seemingly inattentive students "felt bad" after being blase towards their classmates.

The students who had spilled their heartrending stories were irate at such behaviour, yet admitted that they could not resist checking their cellphones every three minutes or so.

So Turkle, MIT's long-time professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, decided to make their discomfort a topic for class discussion. She also banned the use of digital devices for the duration of that pow-wow.

"In the conversation that followed," she recalls in the book, "the students portrayed constant connection as a necessity. These students don't feel they can be present unless they can also be in a way absent".

From their later discussion of why such texting was offensive, Prof Turkle muses: "My students became upset because in this class, their usual split attention felt wrong. It devalued their classmates' life stories and their own and made them feel that they were crossing some moral line."

Yet, her students told her that they could also imagine a time when everyone would continue texting even if the walls around them were collapsing, as it were.

Those familiar with her work and her first three books - 1984's The Second Self, 1995's Life On A Screen and 2011's Alone Together - will know too well that she actually contributed to these hyper-connected, always-distracted times.

In Alone Together, for instance, she states that in the late 1970s, her boss had already instructed her to find ways to entice people to spend as much time as they could on personal computers.

That turned Turkle into an advocate for empowering people with technology. She even took home robots for her daughter Rebecca Willard to interact with, which the latter has been doing since she was six years old.

Today, Willard has to guide her mother through the many unspoken rules of digital communications. For example, any text on a touchscreen is seen as cold and angry and so has to be warmed up with emoticons. Similarly, texting another with correct spelling, proper grammar and in complete sentences is seen as weird. What works, instead, is to adopt an ultra-casual tone, texting poorly spelt words in broken sentences and spraying question marks and exclamation marks all over the touchscreen of the smartphone. And to think that all this became the norm only in 2009.

Last month, it was reported on news sites, putting a full stop at the end of a text is considered rude because it is akin to asking someone to shut up. In the same month, Turkle was interviewed on the BBC World Service and its presenter pointed out that she had been "part of the problem", a charge she did not deflect.

What she has done in Reclaiming Conversation is to set out clearly and definitively the dangers from having people prefer to, as she puts it, "text rather than talk".

She calls the fallouts "unintended consequences", which sounds defensive and is perhaps understandably so, given how avidly she used to champion the wonders of pervasive, customised technology.

Among many other concerns, cubicle serfs are now behaving like "pilots in a cockpit", by donning headphones at their desk, with their laptop, cellphones and other digital devices to hand.

Feuding couples, parents and children are increasingly taking their quarrels online, or "fighting by text". This is chiefly because texting instead of talking enables them to control their responses, by reviewing and editing what they want to say before they press "Send".

They tell Turkle, if they text each other instead of investing time in a face-to-face conversation, they have "a record" of their exchanges, which becomes their security blanket as well as weapon in their arsenal of acidity.

What is worse, with digital communications, courting couples are now able to manipulate each other's emotions.

In her book, one Julian messaged his increasingly distant girlfriend Tessa online, but she took her own sweet time to reply. That was a crushing experience for Julian because social media is set up such that he was able to see that she had received his message and read into her dallying as her rejection of him.

Many Americans now play a game in which they throw their cellphones on the dinner table at the start of the gathering. The first one to reach for a phone when it buzzes has to pay for the meal.

From her research on how much people are hooked on constant connections via their smartphones these days, Turkle has found that the longest almost anyone can bear to be alone with his or her thoughts is seven minutes. In one experiment, people were asked to give themselves an electric shock the moment they fidgeted in solitude. The researchers found that even those who feared electrocution were pressing the shock button after seven minutes. They would rather hurt themselves than stay bored.

Digital communications, Turkle notes, has conditioned everyone to strive for politically correct responses and craft ever-positive, flavour-of-the-month identities online. After all, she stresses, people use the Internet primarily to explore what they want to be and so it is a "dream space".

She describes all this through the many people from all walks of life that she has surveyed over the years.

The impact on social interactions from all these, she argues, is that it strips society of patience, commitment and, ultimately, empathy. By preferring easy-to-edit texting, people avoid open-ended conversations, which they now find meandering and messy.

In sum, she shows in this book that the lack of attention is a ticking time bomb for human comity.

Hers is a comprehensively crafted, cautionary tale of our times and everyone would do well to heed her argument for more actual, not virtual chats.


Fact file

Lost without punctuation

In 2005, Sherry Turkle took her 14-year-old daughter Rebecca Willard to an exhibition on evolutionist Charles Darwin's life and thoughts at the American Museum of Natural History.

At the entrance to the exhibition, they saw two caged giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin had done some of his seminal studies.

Upon seeing them, Turkle's daughter said: "They could have used a robot."

As Turkle, now 67 and twice divorced, explained in a 2007 essay on Forbes.com, "she thought it was a shame to bring the tortoise all this way if it's just going to sit there".

Then, Turkle overheard another young girl at the exhibition tell her father the same thing, that she did not see the point of displaying live tortoises in cages, when replicas of these would have worked just as well.

The girl's father spluttered: "But the point is that they are real."

This prompted Turkle, an American sociologist, psychologist and teacher, to quiz other visitors to the exhibition on the importance of interacting with living creatures.

The youths among them echoed the two girls' responses.

This startled her enough to write her 2011 book, Alone Together, in which she analysed why people were increasingly treating other people like things, while substituting digital devices for people.

The alumna of Harvard University, whom peers refer to as "the anthropologist of cyberspace", is, however, sanguine about the extent of her influence.

As she notes in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, it took "generations" to get society to accept nutrition labels on processed food and speed limits on vehicles. What were the chances, then, that rekindling the love for unhurried chats in a hasty age would happen anytime soon?

It seems being savvy with social media is a work in progress for her too.

About eight years ago, she wanted to have coffee with her daughter and texted her this: "Darling, call me when you can."

Willard panicked and texted back: "What's wrong?"

When her mother said everything was fine, she said: "It's your text. There is no punctuation. The whole way you are texting is weird."

As Turkle mused later: "I should have said something like, "Hey... am swinging by the Square tomorrow :) on my way to a meeting later!!!! ... do you have time for an early breakfast??? Henrietta's Table? Not dorm food?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Lost without punctuation Join the conversation on Jan 27 Fact file When texting replaces talking Just a minute'. Print Edition | Subscribe