Technology enchants; it makes us forget what we know about life. The new becomes confused with progress.
"Among family and friends, among colleagues and lovers, we turn to our phones instead of each other," writes Sherry Turkle in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation. "We readily admit we would rather send an electronic message than commit to a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. This new mediated life has gotten us into trouble."
Haven't we got enough to worry about already? Climate change, the Zika virus, Islamist terrorists, drought, GOP intrigue, income inequality, racism, gun carnage ... and on and on. Now, to the unsettling list add the "empathy gap" manifesting itself in today's children.
The empathy gap comes in for close examination by Turkle, an eminent MIT professor specializing in human interaction with technology. She avers that today's middle-schoolers have trouble with concentration, eye contact, body language and listening. Their friendships are shallow, and their understanding of one another is attenuated. The cause? The digital cocoon and a resultant "flight from conversation," she writes. "Without conversation, studies show we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled." Turkle's book is an anecdotal study of "lonely kids for whom the computer offers the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy."
It is not just the kids who have replaced talking with texting, communication with connection, friendship with Facebook. Adults take to their phones every 6.5 minutes to keep the neurons sparking and to allay boredom. Teens send 100 texts a day on average. They do so, Turkle writes, not because it is efficient but because texting provides a safe distance from the give and take of human interaction. Electronic sentences can be edited and revised before they are sent. Even the person who is sending them is subject to revision. Social media allow you to create the person you want to be. With Facebook, the world's a stage, and each time the curtain rises, Turkle writes, you can "perform a better version of yourself."
The edit-and-revise option is a fairly recent one, but testing the boundaries of authenticity is not. After all, who isn't image conscious? In a pre-Internet age, my friends and I frequented such Salt Lake City nightspots as the Crow's Nest, Grogan's and Torrey's. Conversation with girls was the goal. One friend—who adopted "Fred Quimby" as a nom du bar—would turn his Sigma Chi sweatshirt inside out to hide his membership in the fraternity. Don't ask me why. Perhaps for a reason related to former Congressman Anthony Weiner's decision to take "Carlos Danger" as his nom du sext.
I have no Facebook persona to groom. I can't find time for Twitter or Instagram. Nevertheless, I share the empathy gap afflicting hardcore texters, emailers and their ilk. Like them, I value the ability to choose my words deliberately, to compose sentences at a safe distance from emotional turbulence. In the past year, two of my friends have lost loved ones to tragedy; another friend was diagnosed with cancer. In each case the news has sent me to the keyboard, not the doorbell, to painstakingly craft sentences that convey sympathy with an empathy subtext. The result is expedient, but it lacks the intimacy of face-to-face interaction.
That I am able to override the impulse to write instead of talk gives me an edge on the middle-schoolers Turkle is worried about. What the kids need is a healthy dose of face-to-face conversation. It is the remedy they crave. Because their parents are phone junkies, kids have to compete with telephones for parental attention. It is an uphill battle. Parents, eyes-down, even text during dinner. Denied conversation and mentoring, the kids withdraw into digital isolation. There, "friction-free friendships" are the rule; emojis take the place of emotion; and the capacity for empathy withers.
In case you haven't noticed, we're sloshing around in knee-deep irony here. The device intended to convey the human voice from point to point has become a device for suppressing it. Even voicemail is passé. Too little conversation is causing empathy problems for children, but too many "national conversations" is a problem for everyone else. The "national conversation," a favorite dodge of politicians, is the equivalent of treading water. When a politician calls for a conversation on climate change, immigration, racism, gun control—pick your favorite crisis—you can be sure nothing will be done. Satisfaction is elusive. A 2012 study at Utah Valley University concluded those who spent a lot of time on Facebook believed "others were happier and had better lives."
Irony notwithstanding, "our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection," writes novelist Jonathan Franzen in a review of Reclaiming Conversation. "The time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place."
Putting technology in its place is a tall order. The phone is too addictive. Most people take their phone to bed. When I am stopped at a red light, I look at the cars on either side of me. Almost all of the drivers are on the phone.
Turkle intends the book to be a call to action. Our mediated life may be dehumanizing, but she believes that we are smart enough to recognize the empathy gap for what it is and to do something about it. Phone-free, family dinners would be a good starting point. "We have time to make the corrections," she writes. "And to remember who we are—creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky and face-to-face."
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