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Student Review: Stop Googling. Let's Talk.

By Lily Iatridis  April 12, 2016

Sherry Turkle article

This week, we're sharing a textual analysis essay by homeschooled high schooler Katy R. As you can see below, Katy is a highly motivated advanced writing student. While our Essay Rock Star essay requirements are generally five paragraphs in length, we allowed Katy to pick a topic of her own choosing and analyze it to her heart's content. Instructor feedback was needed only to maintain focus for her ideas and for final editing.

We have a wide diversity of students in our Essay Rock Star program, and we were happy to see a student like Katy gain value and produce college level work using Essay Rock Star. While our online curriculum is the same for all students, live teacher feedback and direction is tailored to each particular student.

Turkle, Sherry. “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” New York Times. 26 September 2015.

  by Katy R.

photo courtesy of Yann Kebbi of the New York Times

The way we communicate has dramatically changed over the past decade. Exchanges that were once achieved by long letters shipped between and across continents by boats, trains and wagons or by long talks with a cup of tea are now largely completed via email and increasingly, text-messaging. Mobile devices are pervasive these days; they have seeped into every spare moment of our time. Is this good or bad? What are the ramifications of the proliferation of cellphones? How much time should we be spending on them? A lot of us have a hard time answering those types of question, but this article can help us. In this piece, published in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle serves as our guide as she leads us through current research and theories about the use of technology, which she presents along with her own assertions about the positive and negative aspects of our digital lives. Articulately arguing that mobile devices, particularly smartphones, can cause decay in our face-to-face communications, she expresses a sentiment that many people feel but few wish to realize (even though examples are everywhere). She sets out her research in “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” in an understandable and clear manner and pairs it with many other observations—common ones that you or I could observe—as she urges us to think about the significance of keeping our heads down and blocking out other people. The accuracy of her descriptions and the ways in which she employs research to support her thesis is convincing and well done. This essay illuminates the psychology of our behaviours that relate to technology—and should be required reading for everyone who inhabits both the real world and the digital world.

Turkle has been working in this field long enough to see how our relationship with computers has shifted and how tethered to them we have become. For the past three decades, she has been watching and documenting how we live our lives with technology and has written a number of books on the subject, from The Second Self in 1984, which explored the dual selves that emerged as personal computers became more widespread, to the more recent Reclaiming Conversation (2015) which parts of this article are based on. Whereas some of her earlier work seems purely exploratory and possibly more enthusiastic about advances in personal computing, her present-day commentary veers to the cautionary side. That is the tone of the message that she has taken to other platforms—she gave a very popular talk at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, CA a few years ago entitled Connected, but alone? and has given a lot of interviews focused on her inquiries into this matter. In my research for this analysis, I have come to see her work as something of a counterweight to the other types of news on technology. The brash enthusiasm typical of those does not exist within her current studies, though that is not to say that Turkle’s outlook is particularly bleak. She has pulled back the curtain to examine our brains on computers and come back with a message of caution, a message that I think is worth hearing out for anyone today. After all, she is analyzing and commenting on a global situation: there are approximately 6 billion cellphones in a world of 7 billion people, and 64% of American adults own smartphones while 9/10ths of Americans have a cellphone of some kind. The broadness of the subject is quite staggering. We are all affected by what she is talking about, so most of us can relate to her observations in some capacity, or at least recognize the patterns and behaviours she describes. In some ways, I think she is voicing what we already intuitively know. The feelings of disconnection, the deluge of purposeless news and clutter and the awkwardness of communicating in the form of bits and bites are not necessarily new, but they seem to be on the rise. As smartphones and tablets have exploded onto the market and are now used by people of all ages and from all walks of life, anytime and everywhere, Sherry Turkle has been examining how those devices shapes our daily, real-life interactions. This piece is the statement of her concern.

The primary problem lies with the fact that we are avoiding conversations, particularly the ones which we have no control over, those where we look each other in the eye and respond based on tone, posture, and emotion. Those are the conversations, she writes, where “We learn who we are”. We are having less of them these days, ironically, in this era of connectivity. The author and essayist Rebecca Solnit was describing this phenomenon when she wrote, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.” Sometimes we turn away from those around us to get lost in a digital realm, a place where, in Ms. Turkle’s words, “You can put your attention wherever you want it to be. You can always be heard. You never have to be bored.” Do you ever find your mind cluttered, your thoughts unfocused? I sure do. Yes, we are constantly divided between the people around us and what lies in the bottomless digital world.  

Think about our reality for a moment. What do we see when we venture out into the world? In restaurants, on subways, in queues and on the streets it has become a familiar sight to see people together but not talking with or interacting with each other. For many of us it seems that we are always online, always connected. The research that the author points to shows that this factor has lessened our attention span greatly, reducing in us a willingness to take the time to meander through a potentially wonderful conversation. One young woman told Ms. Turkle that conversations demand the ‘seven minute rule’, that is, it takes seven minutes to figure out how a conversation will unfold. This, the student implied, takes too much effort, and besides, you don’t really know if the conversation will reach a particular conclusion or take an interesting twist, or just be boring. She writes about the college students she has interacted with and what they tell her about their multitasking abilities (which are almost too good among many young people; she says we don’t even realize we are multitasking most of the time). She also describes a set of experiments done by researchers at the University of Essex who took pairs of people, sat them across a table with a few items on it from each other and told them to converse. The researchers discovered that when there was a cellphone present, the pairs’ perceived trust, empathy and relationship quality decreased. Conversations about meaningful topics were not as meaningful. And therein lies the basis of Ms. Turkle’s argument: our mobile devices are changing the form of our face-to-face conversations, probably for the worse. We now have the ability to check in and out, to leap into other worlds whenever what is going on around us doesn’t suit our tastes and we never ever have to be alone. Sherry Turkle sees it as her job to draw our attention to this gap. The fact that we are very rarely truly alone has a big impact on our communication, she says, and on our empathy as well. Other people have noticed this, too, even within popular culture. A few years ago the comedian Louis CK did a bit where he described the need for people, kids especially, to learn how to be, and not do anything, to just be a person, free of constraints and sometimes bored. Sherry Turkle agrees. She says that we need the time to work things out in our own heads, for that is essentially how we become self-possessed, thoughtful people. But when we are always somehow connected, we are never truly alone and that time does not exist. We have no time to cultivate and curate our thoughts, to ‘gather ourselves’, in her words, when we don’t have that time for aloneness. Although she illustrates her argument—that phones and technology shape the way we converse—by describing experiments conducted, but she doesn’t just use examples. She describes how we feel: how hard it is to get through the lulls in conversations, times when we want to have other people’s full attention or how phonelessness makes a big impression on people who have grown up with their devices in hand. The writer meanders, thinking about the necessity of reclaiming solitude, the “virtuous circle” that links that with conversation, and wonders if time spent on mobile devices is “time well spent”. In doing so, she wants us to wonder that, too.

In many ways, her closing argument is most succinctly captured in the title of the article—“Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” Turkle’s main point is that mobile tech fragments both our time and our attention, leaving us to deal with bits and pieces. We have to keep our conversations brief because we know that texts, emails and phone calls are bound to interrupt the exchange anyway. What time we previously spent in solitude, where we can muse, create and ‘gather ourselves’, has dissolved. She wants us to think about how technology gets in the way of other aspects of our lives. Turkle implores us expand our communications, put down our devices and talk. She knows and acknowledges how useful all of these devices are, and her perspective is one that is not anti-technology but pro-conversation. This is important, because society has become very reliant on technology and we tend to think very highly of it. We don’t really want to hear about the bad parts. Thus the piece responds not to a particular opinion, but rather to the widespread belief in the benefits of technology without considering any detrimental side effects. But Turkle does so gently. By taking the form that it does, the text does not come off as an assault on technology or a call to a new form of Luddism, but instead implores us to explore the layers of unintended consequences, collateral damage and sightlessness in our behaviours. Turkle quietly pushes forward an explanation for how the world is working —this is where we are right now — and says let’s think about this. Maybe there are some things we should change in our behaviours with our phones and mobile devices. In my reading, her approach is considerate and balanced, and that is vitally important, because some people carry a bit of unconscious guilt about spending too much time focused on technology (or at least I sure do). The piece possesses a careful voice of caution, taking the high road over what could have become an angry diatribe, which helps her convey her point to the readers. She prods us into self-awareness. Some people might think of the sentiments expressed as some form of nostalgia —back in my day, things used to be better— but the author deftly uses her accumulation of evidence and knowledge to shore up her argument, proving that this article isn’t based on wistful memories of a different era. She asks us to act on this issue with intention: create device free zones, turn off our phones and, again, talk. Optimism is threaded throughout the article and a lot of space is given to talk of our resilience and how we can create a world of richer exchanges and deeper connections. The essay ends with that, on quite a hopeful note.

I think that even if one does not agree with or decide to heed Turkle’s calls, we should listen to them, and think about all the madness and possible solutions. Technology is such a large part of our lives that it demands our attention and deserves our discussion. I applaud Sherry Turkle for raising awareness in this area. Everyone should read this piece and consider the impact cellphones, and technology in general, have on their lives and relationships.

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