Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Title:  Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
Author:  Sherry Turkle
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1594205558 / 978-1594205552

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Why a book on conversation?"

Favorite Quote:  "Relationships deepen not because we necessarily say anything in particular but because we are invested enough to show up for another conversation. In family conversations, children learn that what can matter most is not the information shared but the relationships sustained."

The subtitle of this book states "the power of talk in a digital age." The book dissects the negative impacts of the digital age on conversations and the life skills and benefits that face to face conversation brings. It issues a call to action to reclaim conversation.

The book is structured around an idea presented by Henry David Thoreau. Henry David Thoreau is perhaps best known for his work Walden, a documentation of his return to a simpler life. For his life at Walden Pond, Thoreau said, "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

This book follows this metaphor throughout. A section focuses on the first chair - the need for solitude and the impact of ever present technology on our ability to just be with ourselves. The next section focuses on the two chairs - friendship. It talks about the use of technology to communicate among family, friends, and colleagues. It presents examples of what is being lost with our movement away from face to face communications. Another section focuses on the the three chairs - the more global and societal impacts of our movement away from true conversation. This book goes on to a more philosophical level and introduces a fourth chair. It includes a fascinating discussion of what it means to be human and how technology is changing that definition. 

The problem is not simple, but it is simply stated. Machines, no matter how sophisticated, emulate human behavior as if they understand and as if a human being was responding. However, no matter what, the machines cannot in fact completely comprehend human thought and emotion and cannot be human. What human abilities, relationships, and tasks we are willing to relegate to machines? "Intelligence once meant more than why any artificial intelligence does. It used to include sensibility, sensitivity, awareness, discernment, reason, acumen, and wit. And yet we readily call machines intelligent now." What do we lose by doing so?

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who specializes in studying human-technology interactions, backs up her views with examples and data from her research as well as a wide range of other research (as listed in the end notes for the book). The book sites everything from the advertising of Siri as a companion and the use of services such as SnapChat and Facebook to the recent movie Her, in which a shy, lonely man falls in "love" with an operating system. "We had a love affair with a technology that seemed magical. But like great magic, it worked by commanding our attention and not letting us see anything but what the magician wanted us to see. Now we are ready to reclaim our attention, for solitude, for friendship, for society."

The prescription too is not simple but is simply stated. Create times and places in your life that are device free and create devices which are less likely to pull people away from face to face interaction. Apply this rule in personal and professional settings. Allow conversation to restart. The solution is not to do away with technology, but "to be more intentional in our use for technology."

Interesting and full of ideas I agree with, the book comes repeatedly to the same simple ideas from a myriad of directions and with a variety of examples - perhaps too many for me for I already agree with many of the the ideas of this book. I don't need to be convinced, but many people do. Hopefully, in the many examples, at least some will strike a chord with readers, and a conversation will begin.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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