The founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self explores the danger that text messaging is replacing in-depth, face-to-face conversation.
Divided attention has become the new norm as we shift our attention back and forth between our mobile devices and present companions whenever there is a lull in the conversation. “Fully present to each other, we learn to listen…[and] develop the capacity for empathy,” writes Turkle (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, 2011, etc.), but “these days…we find ways around conversation.” Throughout this eye-opening book, the author cites some amazing statistics: “average American adults check their phones every six and a half minutes”; “Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day.” An even more insidious problem is that “online communication makes us feel more in charge of our time and self-presentation,” than speaking to one another. It affords the opportunity to edit what we want to say. Turkle shares an amusing anecdote of how the etiquette of text messaging requires the use of punctuation marks to indicate emotional tone. Adhering to the new norms, she texted her 21-year-old daughter with a brief message to set up a meeting for morning coffee, but her daughter was alarmed. By omitting punctuation, Turkle had inadvertently signaled distress. A more proper message would have been, “Hey…am swinging by the Square tomorrow :) on my way to a meeting later!!!!!...do you have time for an early breakfast??? Henrietta's Table? Not dorm food???” Online connections with friends and family can also change the tenor of communications, as we edit our posts to encourage positive feedback. More importantly, digital devices encroach on family time, and teenagers are not the only culprits. All too frequently, children complain of the difficulty of gaining their parents’ full attention. Turkle also wisely acknowledges the benefits we receive from our digital devices. “It is not a moment to reject technology,” she writes, “but to find ourselves.”
A timely wake-up call urging us to cherish the intimacy of direct, unscripted communication.