Dr. Sherry Turkle has interviewed countless people about their plugged-in lives. In her most recent TED talk, the MIT professor and author (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) observes that being so pervasively plugged into mobile technology not only changes what we do, but can even change who we are. She notes, for example, that people think nothing of texting during corporate board meetings. They shop and browse and update Facebook during classes and presentations. They sleep with their smartphones. People text at funerals.
People even talk about the important new skill, she says, of learning to make eye contact – while texting.
That precious smartphone clutched in your hand? Dr. Turkle observes that we embrace three gratifying fantasies about our phones:
- that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be
- that we will always be heard
- that we will never have to be alone
That third belief is central to changing our psyches, she says. Being alone makes us feel anxious, panicky, reaching for our mobile devices, checking and updating obsessively, seeking constant connection, shaping a new way of being:
I share, therefore I am
“We’re setting ourselves up for trouble – getting used to being alone together. We want to be together – but elsewhere. People can’t get enough of each other if and only if they can have each other in amounts they can control. It’s called The Goldilocks effect: not too much, not too little, but just right.
“Human relationships are rich and messy and demanding – and we can clean them up with technology. But when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We shortchange ourselves and over time, but we forget this and we stop caring. A flight from conversation can really matter. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development, of knowing and listening and really learning about each other.
Over and over, she hears people say: “I would rather text than talk.” People can get so used to being shortchanged out of real conversation, so used to getting by with less, that they can become almost willing to dispense with real live people altogether.
Here’s what she calls the painful truth that she has learned over the past 15 years.
“That feeling that nobody is listening to me is what makes technology so appealing. It makes us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us.
“And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
Does always being connected makes us feel less alone? No, she explains. In fact, if we’re not able to be alone, we’ll actually be more lonely:
“And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”
What’s the antidote to this conversation-less plugged-in life? She warns of the need to cultivate a capacity for solitude, where we find ourselves so we can reach out to others to form genuine attachments.
“Think of solitude as a good thing. Create sacred spaces at home and at work, and reclaim them for actual face-to-face conversation. We need to really listen to each other – yes, including the boring bits.”
Dr. Antti Oulasvirta of the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology echoed Dr. Turkle’s observations in an Aalto University news release (7/25/11) about his own institute’s smartphone usage research.
“What concerns us here is that if your habitual response to boredom is that you pick up the phone to find interesting stimuli, you will be systematically distracted from the more important things happening around you.
“Habits are automatically triggered behaviors and compromise the more conscious control that some situations require. Studies are already starting to associate smartphone use to dire consequences like driving accidents and poor work-life balance.
“Unfortunately, as decades of work in psychology shows, habits are not easy to change.”
He adds that the habit-forming nature of these mobile devices adds to their pervasiveness.
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