I had the great pleasure recently of hearing a keynote presentation by Sherry Turkle at the Jewish Funders Network conference. Turkle is a professor of psychology and sociology at MIT and the author of several books, including her two most recent titles, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, and Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age.
You may have read Turkle’s work in the New York Times, as she’s had a couple of op-eds there in recent years, or you may be one of the 3 million people who have watched her TED talk. Her basic point is this: Alongside many wonderful things, mobile technology is also wreaking some enormously corrosive effects in our individual and collective lives. It isn’t just that a recent Pew survey found that 89 percent of Americans took out a phone during their last social interaction, or that 82 percent of them said it disrupted the conversation. It’s also that we’ve developed entire new disorders, like disconnect anxiety: “a feeling of discomfort that occurs when a heavy Internet user is unable to access the online world.”
In her remarks at the conference I attended, Turkle stressed that the constant capacity for connection—the root of disconnect anxiety—is degrading some key capacities we need in order to maintain our health as the social creatures we are hard-wired to be. Among these are the capacity for solitude, which is a prerequisite for the capacity to engage in conversation: If we are uncomfortable being alone with ourselves, we enter conversation not from a position of openness, but from a position of desperation for contact and gratification. People then are no longer subjects to be engaged with, but objects to entertain us. As Turkle summed it up during her talk, “We are the empathy gap.”
As I listened to this observation about the relationship between solitude and conversation, I found myself writing down our tagline at Ask Big Questions: Understand others, understand yourself. As I’ve written many times before, we approach our work with the idea that these two kinds of understanding are intertwined: you can’t do one without the other. We come to know ourselves in relationship and community, and we can only participate in those relationships and communities if we are comfortable in our own skin.
In the last chapter of Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle identifies a few key practices and mindsets to push back against alluring power of our devices. Among them are:
Create sacred spaces for conversation.
Talk to people with whom you don’t agree.
Obey the seven-minute rule (force yourself not to take out your phone until at least seven minutes into a conversation).
Learn from moments of friction.
Remember what you know about life.
Don’t avoid difficult conversations.
Try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking.
These are all practices and mindsets we nurture in our work at Ask Big Questions, both through formally training people in how to do them, and just as importantly, in creating resources for people to use in order to effect them. As Turkle’s book argues, and as so much other social science has shown, we are wired to want to be social, to be in healthy relationships. The absence of those relationships leads us to all sorts of negative mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety. So, we have an innate pull towards good conversation.
And yet, today more than ever, most of us need some help making those conversations happen. What we have found after six years at ABQ is that something as small as a little booklet of questions, that can be shared between two people or a whole group, can make an enormous difference. Just having an on-ramp, a way into more empathetic conversation, starting with generous and substantive questions that matter to all of us and that all of us can answer—that little thing can make such an enormous difference.
And then, when you layer on top of that an additional structure like good conversation around a common discussion object, you have a conversation community, a public conversation. As Turkle writes in Reclaiming Conversation, “A public conversation can model freedom of thought. It can model courage and compromise. It can help people think things through.” The one-on-one practices of listening and understanding now get elevated into the register of the community and society.
Both these steps are necessary, now perhaps more than ever. Neither can happen without the other. And both are utterly doable. As Turkle writes, “Conversation is there to reclaim. For the failing connections of our digital world, it is the talking cure.”