Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation found its way into the conversation yesterday, both in CoPhi and Happiness. What’s special about face-to-face encounters? Why didn’t Boethius just write up his Consolation as a soliloquy? Isn’t texting and tweeting a lot more like talking to yourself than to another, even another you’ve invented or hallucinated? Is all this screen-time really making us happier?
Jonathan Franzen (whose Purity I can already recommend, four chapters in) features lots of conversation. He reviews Turkle:
When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins… And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed… children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.
I knew that. We’ve been carving away all semester, and I’ve begun calling out students when I notice them checking out of our conversations in class. It makes us all uncomfortable. Good.
We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
That’s the nub of it. Empathy, fellow-feeling, openness, spontaneity, depth seem threatened by our newfound excess of mediated distraction. It’s a big price to pay for an end to boredom.
And the threat to happiness is bigger still. Those Alan Watts tweets about washing this dish, taking this step, are on target. (Ironically, yes.) “Unitasking,” Turkle calls it. It might just be the medicine we need.
One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.
But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.
A human way. As Colbert keeps saying: stay human.
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