Saving the Lost Art of Conversation

In a fast-paced digital age, an MIT psychologist tries to slow us down.
John Cuneo

“I am going to be a little boring,” Sherry Turkle announces as we sit down to tea in the living room of her sprawling Boston townhouse. “And you’re going to be a little boring, too.”

Turkle, for the record, is not boring. She is a psychologist and a professor at MIT whose primary academic interest—the relationship between humans and machines—is especially relevant in today’s networked age. Her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, explores our reliance on devices that can isolate us under the auspices of connection. Published in 2011, it poured 384 pages’ worth of water onto technological optimism at a time when most of the culture preferred to focus on the promise and allure of digital devices. In this environment, Turkle has been one of only a handful of experts willing to come out as tech-skeptical, which has made her a regular on the op-ed/Colbert Report/TED Talk circuit.

This tech critic, however, is not tech-phobic. She works with robots. She has an iPhone; actually, she has several. She texts with her daughter. She e‑mails with me. The first decoration I saw in her entryway was a large bowl brimming with computer accessories.

As we chat, it becomes clear that Turkle is not just not boring—she’s an exceptionally skilled conversationalist. After tea, we take a walk around her Back Bay neighborhood. Throughout our conversation, she occasionally touches my forearm. She speaks deliberately, pausing often. She laughs easily and heartily, a sign more of her warmth than of my wit. She has at her disposal what the best conversationalists have: a wealth of experience to draw from.

Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”

“I can’t, in restaurants, not watch families not talking to each other,” Turkle tells me. “In parks, I can’t not watch mothers not talking to their children. In streets, I can’t not watch mothers texting while they’re pushing their children.”

Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.

The conclusion she’s arrived at while researching her new book is not, technically, that we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it’s ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.

Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.

Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.

The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.

She wants us to reclaim the permission to be, when we want and need to be, dull.

She advocates limiting our device usage in “sacred spaces” like the dinner table, the places where phones and their enticements may impede intimacy and interaction. She wants us to look into each other’s eyes as we talk. She wants us to read each other’s movements. She wants us to have conversations that are supremely human.

On Boylston Street, we come across Boston’s Apple Store. Earlier in the day, there’d been a crowd outside. New iPhones had just arrived, and the customary scrum of people wanting to be the first to own them had assembled in a neat, eager line. Some people stood under large umbrellas, shielding themselves from the sun.

Turkle and I enter the store. She scans the room. “Look at this couple,” she whispers, nudging me. The middle-aged pair is chatting in a casual way that, from a distance, could indicate either long-standing familiarity or the lack of it. They’re both looking down at an iPad, the surface of which they’re taking turns swiping. The man points to something on the screen. The woman giggles. They’re flirting. Turkle leans toward them, assessing. “They might even be picking each other up,” she says. Then again, “they could be married for 40 years.”

It really is hard to tell. Thanks to the buzz that ricochets off the thick glass-and-concrete floors from kids playing games on iPhones, customers getting tips from T-shirted workers, and people chatting as they stare into screens either enormous or comically small, our research capabilities are limited. But that’s a good thing. Conversation—terribly boring, and wonderfully so—is everywhere.

“You wouldn’t want to be churlish and say that this is not a social environment, that this is not a warm environment, that this is not a place where people are,” Turkle says. “I’ve spent hours here, eavesdropping.”

I look around the store, packed with products that promise connection, and remark that it looks and feels like a temple. Turkle nods. She surveys the airy space, streaked with sunlight, bustling with people, and thunderous with the din of human voices. “Everybody’s talking,” she muses. “And nobody’s talking about anything except what’s on the machines.”

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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