Texting Isn't the Problem: A Conversation With Sherry Turkle About Reclaiming Conversation

I recall my first year as a professor at Lake Forest College (2001), where a single student spoke on her bulky cell phone as she walked across the quad. I would hold my hand to my ear as I passed her as if I were talking, a joke we shared.
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Sherry Turkle wants you to Stop Googling (sort of) and also to Talk to Each Other.

Her New York Times essay (September 26) and response (Oct 1) covers the expansive domain of her excellent new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin).

Turkle is a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. and also Lake Forest College's annual Oppenheimer Lecturer.

I recall my first year as a professor at Lake Forest College (2001), where a single student spoke on her bulky cell phone as she walked across the quad. I would hold my hand to my ear as I passed her as if I were talking, a joke we shared. Today, the devices in our pockets are supercomputers more powerful than those that NASA used for the moon landing, but also items that channel human desire in new and complicated ways.

Turkle and I spoke on the phone before meeting in person next week, and here is an edited transcript of our talk.


[We say hello. I make joke about Twitter.]

Sherry: My message of this project is not that you shouldn't enjoy your Twitter, it's just that when you're talking to me, you should put it aside.

Davis: You don't mean just to you, but when you are talking to anyone, right?

Sherry: Yes, yes, but particularly to me (laughs). No, I mean to anyone. It's a distinction that I feel very attached to because this book is really not anti-technology. It's pro conversation; it is almost impossible to get this message across because people want to say "Oh well, you know, that's an anti-technology book." I take my guide from the from the college junior who said to me: "The problem isn't our texting... It's what our texting is doing to our conversations when we're together that's the problem."

Davis: I find that there's all sorts of power relations embedded in the questions of when a person takes out his or her phone in the presence of someone else. If the phone owner thinks it is a casual social interaction then -- boom -- the thing is out.

Sherry: Yes, and I am saying... our social interactions are more delicate than we think. I'm telling the story of what goes on, of how people are feeling.

Davis: That's interesting. How did Reclaiming Conversation come together? I remember your last book Alone Together, but what made you write this book?

Sherry: I ended Alone Together [sound of phone ringing]... And, see I'm just ignoring my other phone. I ended Alone Together and there was an issue that everybody was talking about: "I would rather text than talk. "I gave a TED talk after that book in which I said people always want to edit, that they like being perfect. People want to be able to control their self-presentation. This generation is obsessed with their fantasies about perfection.

Davis: It's interesting; I proposed to your publicist that we do this interview over email. Yet it's not that I didn't want to talk to you.

Sherry: Yeah big guy, so what does that really say?

Davis: It's all about time. After we talk, I'll have to transcribe what we're talking about, or get some help doing that. The alternative is email, even recognizing that it will produce more carefully crafted statements. Still, I get where that's not doing what a conversation does.

Sherry: For your purposes, in getting to know a speaker who is going to then be there in person next week, it's clear that back and forth on email wouldn't have been enough.

Davis: That's true. Absolutely true.

Sherry: I don't know the schedule [at Lake Forest College], as I am trying to focus on writing a killer talk. But maybe we'll have a chance for drinks, that'd be nice, I'm there.

Davis: Yes. You'll be seeing a lot of me, but you'll be seeing a lot of others, but...

Sherry: I hope we have a drink or a coffee. I mean, you'll get to know me. But if not, this is your chance to get to know me. I don't want to say that for some purposes an email interchange is the wrong choice. But people are always choosing that, even when it is crazy.

That's why the book is not anti-technology, it's pro-conversation. I know what [transcribing] is like. My whole book was like that; that's my life... transcribing tapes, with digital files and then going back and listening to them, and trying to figure out what people said, and making myself nutty. When you're trying to really get to know somebody, you want to hear their mistakes. You want to hear me stumbling. You want to hear me talking over you.

Davis and Sherry: [Talking over each other].

Davis: Let me say one or two things in response to that. I agree 100% and I'm glad we're having this talk. Yet, when we are talking on the phone or in person, aren't we just performing a certain type of authenticity? You have this book. The book's coming out. You have these two pieces in the New York Times. You're probably doing a thousand of these interviews. How much are your responses now canned? How often are you saying the same thing "This is not an anti-technology book, this is a"?

Sherry: Yes, of course, we're all performing for each other. Here's the difference. We've gotten used to the fact that we're always performing for each other through the millennium. We all know it, and we're aware of it. And now, we get a chance to do something that's actually quite new. We get a chance to go back and edit until we hit send. Yet let me assure you in this "authorial presentation" of me, you're going to ask me questions to which I don't know the answer.

I will hesitate, and there are places I where I will obviously be embarrassed or I'll pause, places where there'll be cracks (laughs). I'm not that good at it.

No matter how much people talk to me about, "Aren't we always presenting, etc.," believe me, if I sent you the Q&A written by my publicist -- vetted by Penguin [laughs] for no chinks in the armor -- it would not be the same thing as talking to me. I stand by that because it's true. Anybody who's ever given an interview while saying, "Oh my God. I had a headache during that interview," or "Where's the water?". When you're talking to somebody, every interview is different because everybody asks you a different thing and you feel yourself responding as a person to the person.

Davis: In Reclaiming Conversation, you write about theorist Michel Foucault, and this reminds me the idea that history is written on the body: "Where's the water?," "I'm tired," "I've got a headache," or "I've done ten thousand of these." These statements suggest and index of "you" in the moment of the interview, which makes it more fascinating than what Penguin could put together.

Sherry: I believe that the phone gives you a trace of the body. Now, it doesn't give you the body, but I know that when I talk to my daughter and in a minute she says, "Mom, do you have a migraine?" And, I'm so medicated when I talk to her, [laughs]. Tens of thousands of dollars of medication have been applied.

Davis: Yes. I've been drinking all morning... [laughs]. What do you think of this? I met with an incoming student at the start of the semester who said, "My mother is driving me crazy. She's calling me 10 times a day. I have to answer the phone. If I don't answer, she keeps calling me back. I just want to be in college. I negotiated her down to my sending her three texts a day. And, she agreed to that."

I found that very striking: the helicopter parent who wants to talk, and the student who says, "I'm just going to text you."

Sherry: We're in this paradoxical moment when our children aren't friends with us. We withdraw from them, and we're on our phones. This is a generalization, this paradox: When our children are in front of us, we're sitting across the table from them and texting. We're taking them out to dinner and we're texting. We're on our phones. In this book there are heartbreaking examples of parents who find ways around conversation when they're with their children. But once our children go away we become the hovering. Let the hovering begin.

I do see a paradox when I talk to parents about their behavior, and my research shows a staggering amount of turning away from children toward pre-occupation with phones, while the children are still at home. Go to any playground, go to any sports game: the children are begging for parental attention, and it's only when we can't have them anymore that suddenly we feel we need to get this communication from them.

But I haven't done any study of this as a pattern. That would be a fascinating next project for me.

Davis: We're running out of time, based upon your busy schedule.

Sherry: If you have more questions, why don't you email me? [Sherry explains that this is a good way for follow-ups after the conversation has started.]

We disconnect. I then email -- asking about Henry David Thoreau, who appears in the book, and the so-called "Internet of Things." She answers via an email sent at 3:05 am.

I want to tell you what she writes to me -- it's fascinating -- but you'll have to either ask me, or join us for Lake Forest College's annual Oppenheimer Lecture, on October 8th, at 7:30 pm.


Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the appropriation novel [SIC].

Many thanks to Nina Vallone for transcribing the interview.

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