Reading Reflection: Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle


ReclaimingConversation_3d“First, that we will always be heard; second, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and third, that we will never have to be alone. A fourth wish, is implied: that we will never be bored.” —Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle, a distinguished scholar in the area of how technology influences human identity to understand what happens when mind meets machine, is an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor in the Program of Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Also a noted author, Turkle, has spent the last 30 years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology and how technology is changing how we live.

Fear of missing out; has escalated into fear of missing anything.

Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, October 2015), is one in which she argues that our most basic technology, face to face conversation, is our most important tool. In this world of ceaseless connection, it is wrecking open-ended conversation.

Turkle uses our net habits and experiences to show us that when we constantly phones in hand, we turn away from our children, friends and co-workers, and even from ourselves. When relationships are mediated through online messages more than face-to-face encounters, complications multiply. Everyone and anyone can find something in Reclaiming Conversation to induce guilt. Therefore, Turkle not only points out how we’ve lost conversation, but also how we can reclaim it and why doing so is critical for us all.

We as human beings have been accustomed to reflect, talk and repeat. Technology interrupts this cycle; it ends conversation. Our relationships now come stamped with “the assumption of divided attention”.

Turkle’s previous book, “Alone ­Together,” which I wrote about here, was about human relationships in the digital age; in it she observes people’s interactions with robots, and by interviews them about their computers and phones. With the data she collected for the book, she mapped and charted the ways in which new technologies render older human values outmoded.

Paralleling this shift is an increasing preference for the virtual over the real. Despite the fact that robots don’t have the capacity or human instinct to care about people, Turkle’s subjects were outrageously quick to settle for the feeling of being cared; this can be argues to be similar to the sense of community that social media delivers. Though the findings are pretty shocking, it is understandably so as the ‘virtual world’ comes without the risks, threats and responsibilities of the real world.

In her interviews, Turkle observed disappointment with human beings, who are flawed, needy and unpredictable, in ways that computers are wired not to be.

“We are being silenced by our technologies. In a way, ‘cured of talking’. That silence means our ability to relate to others is disappearing, too. We face a flight from conversation that is also a flight from self-reflection, empathy and mentorship.” —Sherry Turkle

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique, with less ­emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s interviewees have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them; they communicate incessantly but are anxious and apprehensive of face-to-face conversations.

“Everytime you check your phone in the presence of company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot; and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover or co-worker just said, meant, felt.” We think our devices deliver comfort and efficiency, but, in Turkle’s argument, they offer loneliness and chaos.

Unlike in “Alone Together,” where Turkle diagnosed the problem, the tone of “Reclaiming Conversation” is scholastic and pedagogic. She urges netizens to understand what’s at stake in conversations — “the development of trust and self-esteem,” “the capacity for empathy, friendship and intimacy” — and to recognize their own vulnerability to the charms of technology.

To her credit, Turkle doesn’t ask us to get rid of our technological devices altogether. They “are facts of life and part of our creative lives,” she writes. “The goal is to use them with greater intention.”

“My book is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation. I don’t think we should give up our phones at all. I just think we have to use technology more mindfully…”

Additional Links:
Sherry Turkle’s Interview with VLBZ2
Face to face in the era of digital conversation with NPR podcast

Reading Reflection: Net Smart by Howard Rheingold

Technology isn’t inherently good, and it isn’t inherently bad — but, then again, technology isn’t exactly neutral, either. To get the most benefit out of the Web’s vast offerings, we need to more closely examine how we are spending time online.
—The Washington Post
The future of digital culture—yours, mine, and ours—depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. Spurred by evolving technology and changing social mores, the third space and digital realm have altered how we communicate, what we communicate about, and even the nature of our interpersonal relationships. Within the past few years, there has been much commentary about the psychological and social aspects of these trends.

Howard Rheingold who is a teacher, thinker, futurist and author of Net Smart presents us with “essential survival skills” that would be helpful to us in this digital age. Moving past creating online identities and communities, Net Smart educates us on how to operate in day-to-day life and have a better understanding and make deeper use of social media.

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Rheingold, who has been writing about the digital revolution for a quarter of a century, praises and critiques the tools and diversions in third space. The veteran technology commentator argues that a better understanding of how we connect our attention and intentions online can help both individuals and society at large. His aim to make readers more aware of both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of digital life.

In Net Smart, Rheingold shows us how to use social media intelligently, humanely and most importantly, mindfully. Mindful use of digital media means constantly thinking about what we are doing online; cultivating an ongoing inner inquiry into how we want to spend our time. After all, the Web has transformed people into information producers, and not only mere consumers. Blogs, social media, thematic webs, forums and many other sites are allowing every single human being with an Internet connection to communicate anything to the rest of the world, making it accessible to almost 2.5 billion users.

He argues that learning to engage actively and effectively online is a matter of  conscious decision, mindset and practice. If we combine our efforts wisely, it could produce a more thoughtful society: countless small acts like publishing a Web page or sharing a link could add up to a public good that enriches everybody. Done mindfully, digital participation helps build a more democratic and diverse culture – a participatory one.


Randall Packer had commented on my previous hyperessay on Turkle’s Alone Together:
I think the problem is that for the digital natives, in many ways it is becoming a replacement, and unfortunately, this generation doesn’t necessarily know how to think about this predicament. The important thing is to bring our relationship with technology into a critical space (such as what you are doing), so we can examine and expose what is beneficial and what is harmful.

I think Randall’s comment serves as a smooth transition into Rheingold’s book.


Nagging worries about whether the latest bit of cutting-edge technology will have the unforeseen side effect of dulling our minds have been around ever since the dawn of recorded history. Long before Wikipedia or Google, Plato wrote of a king who feared that the invention of letters and reading would give its users the ability to cite facts that they had not properly earned or mastered. Such an invention will lead to forgetfulness among users, the ancient king predicted, and provide them with a false sense of wisdom.
—The Washington Post

In my opinion, whether technology helps or hurts in the thinking and development of digital natives depends on what specific technology is used and how and at what frequency it is used. However, I completely agree that students and people who have access to a huge amount of information but just can’t process, evaluate and effectively benefit from it. There is also little doubt that all of the new technologies, led by the Internet, are shaping the way we think in ways that are obvious and subtle, deliberate and unintentional, and advantageous and detrimental. Research shows that screen media improves visual-spatial capabilities, increase attentional ability, reaction times, and the capacity to identify details among the clutter.

The aforelinked research by the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in University of Rochester proves that ubiquitous use of Internet search engines is causing digital natives to become less adept at remembering things and more skilled at remembering where to find things. Also, given the ease with which information can be found these days, it only stands to reason that knowing where to look is becoming more important for us than actually knowing something. Therefore, not having to retain information in our brain may allow it to engage in more “higher-order” processing such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

“If like many others, you are concerned social media is making people and cultures shallow, I propose we teach more people how to swim and together explore the deeper end of the pool,” Rheingold said.

In Rheingold’s judgement, Internet surfers should learn to divide their attention optimally; so as not to get lost in the Web’s nooks and crannies. Rheingold advises readers on ways to collaborate with others online and on how to critically consume the information picked up while surfing. He also reminds the reader of the importance of breathing regularly as they dive through their e-mail inbox. Knowing how to utilise online tools without being overloaded with too much irrelevant information is the essential ingredient to personal success in the 21st century.

Net Smart makes a strong case for what Rheingold sees as a set of core skills and competencies which we all need to acquire if we are going to make effective use of the communities and resources we encounter in our everyday lives online. He certainly recognizes the risks and failures associated with the digital era, but he also refuses to let them get in the way of what he sees as the more productive and meaningful ways of engaging with digital culture.

Net Smart offers up a set of 5 literacies Rheingold sees as important: attention, participation, collaboration, “crap detection,” and network smarts. As we’ve become more sophisticated in the ways we use the web, we need to adjust how we use it, being able to tell fact from rumor and able to call on the skills and resources of a community to help answer our questions. Rheingold reminds us of the value of becoming a content curator in the age of the Web.

Curation is a form of digital participation that can refine your captured information into contextualized knowledge, enhance your reputation as well as serve the needs of others

—Howard Rheingold

10603387_913808691980100_8399558099954191424_nPower Law of Participation by Ross Mayfield

“Judgement, taste, depth, and breadth of knowledge can be an asset, a public good, and a commodity.  People can gain attention, admiration, collaboration partners, professional reputations, and business relationships by becoming known curators.”
—Howard Rheingold


Follwing this, Rheingold has also organised the Peeragogy Project, a network of volunteers who are assembling a handbook for co-learners. Rheingold believes that the underlying methodology is enabled by the technology, but the methodology is what is important — giving students a means to continue discursive inquiry beyond the classroom, to tap into worldwide networks of knowledge and expertise, to talk among themselves instead of speaking when called upon by the professor. Making it easier for students to learn together and to take advantage of the infosphere beyond their classroom and their library is what makes for a peeragogy of co-learning. Peeragogy also comes from Rheingold (via his Social Media Classroom) and he explains it here:

When I participated in the Change: Education, Learning, and Technology MOOC, I grew even more interested in the intersection of digital media/networks with self-directed learners and collaborative learning methods. I knew that I wasn’t the first person to explore this space, and I was fortunate that Charley Danoff was in my second cohort of online co-learners. Danoff, it turned out, had written a paper on “Paragogy” with Joe Corneli. I’ve started calling it peeragogy because many people get the point as soon as I use the word.


Living on a Cloud : the Internet learning space

The Internet as a learning platform for digital natives even on social media.
Born after the 1980s and having access to networked digital technologies, “digital natives” grew up and live much of their lives online. Major aspects of their lives – social interactions and friendships – are mediated and developed through gaming and social media. They’ve never known any other way of life so much so that they do not see the Internet as a platform for academic growth and the everyday use of digital and social media could potentially help on the road to being a designer. Pinterest, for example, could be thought of as more than just mindless repining – but as an indicator of trends, popular colour palettes as well as design inspirations. Online forums, where we post questions about our life choices can be related to crowd wisdom comparable to ‘expert’ wisdom. 
“Today, social networks are mostly about sharing moments. In the next decade, they’ll also help you answer questions and solve complex problems.” – Mark Zuckerberg, 2014
Digital natives are relying upon this connected digital space for virtually all of the information they need to live their lives. Research once meant a trip to a library to find a book but now, research simply means a Google Search and for most, a visit to Wikipedia. Living in the time where it is the most rapid period of technological transformation ever – at least when it comes to information – no major aspect of our modern lives are untouched by the way many of us now use the Internet.
We have a fundamental drive to be connected, to be in cooperation and to contribute to a better world but we are often separating the Internet from our ‘formal’ education. If we are interested in living with technology in the best possible way, we must recognise that what matters above all is not the individual devices and social media sites that we use, but rather what we use them for.
Bonus questions: Is the separation of the Internet from education amongst digital natives echoed no matter what culture they’re from? Are American students any different from Singaporean students? And is it symbolic of a larger problem at hand?