A Different Kind of Digital Generation Gap

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This weekend, we got the latest in a recent spate of articles arguing how technology and social media has led humanity to lead lonelier, shallower lives with a diatribe from MIT's Sherry Turkle in The New York Times, who believes today's youth, growing up in an Internet controlled world, don't know how to have a real-life, deep conversation. "Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience," writes Turkle, describing an ancient art all but unknown to today's teens. "When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters," she continues.

Turkle's column, as well as similar pieces in both The New Yorker and The Atlantic, suggests that technology leads us to live less meaningful, lonelier lives. We chat all day long on Gchat, for example, but aren't actually saying anything. But what sounds like a crisis, is actually just unsubstantiated fear, based on anecdotal judgement of a generation Turkle doesn't understand, rather than evidence. The Internet has for sure changed communication. But how is less certain. For all the ways online chatter is "ruining" humanity, this writer—who grew up on AOL instant messenger, chat rooms, and Gmail—can think of some ways the Internet has improved communication. 

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To take a page from Turkle's book, here are just a few, not at all scientific, but true, anecdotal examples of how the Internet has improved communication.

  • Facebook allows me to maintain relationships with far away people that otherwise would have evaporated
  • I can Gchat every single day with my siblings who live in different states and timezones, for free
  • My grandmother and I write each other daily emails, instead of her not hearing from me at all.

To Turkle, those connections aren't deep enough and somehow make me worse at communication in general. And therefore my generation will turn out lonely. "We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true," she says, giving no proof, besides her own feelings. Kids these days spend all day "connecting" without really connecting, she argues, citing my generation's love of headphones and a teenager's desire to talk with a robot instead of his dad about romance, as examples of our said loneliness. (To that last point, what teenager in what generation wouldn't rather talk to anyone but their parents about romance? And perhaps this AI database knows more about romance than his father anyway.)

Beyond flawed examples of loneliness, Turkle's looking at the whole situation from the wrong perspective. "It's the result of looking at an emergent digital lifestyle through a generational prism, one that assumes conversations are only meaningful when they look like the conversations we grew up having," explains The Altantic's Alexandra Samuel, in a rebuttal yesterday. Because my conversations don't resemble hers does not mean that these new modes are failing us. Turkle et al. try to put Internet communication in old parameters, forgetting, however, that it's something fundamentally different. And old people fear different. It's a fear of new technology facilitating isolation that we've seen before, explains author of the book Still Connected Claude Fischer to Eric Klinenberg in Slate. "When the telephone arrived, people didn’t stop knocking on their neighbors' doors; they called and then knocked," says Fischer. "The car did not isolate us; women flocked to driving cars because cars made it easier to get out and see people," he continues, noting two new technologies The Atlantic's Stephen Marche cites as making humans lonelier. There's always new technology amending the way people interact, inciting fear. But different doesn't always mean worse -- at least not across the board worse for everyone.

But maybe Turkle's loneliness thesis comes from her own experiences and inability to adapt. Perhaps she feels thwarted by new technology, therefore the rest of us must feel the same way, too? It's not kids these days or the future of humanity we should worry about, continues Samuel, but those stuck in between, who grew up pre-Internet, but live in our post-Internet society. "But worrying about kids who choose to live online is as misplaced as worrying about seniors who choose to live offline," writes Samuel. Of course those who don't know how to deal with new technology feel the most lost and lonely. But, it's doubtful that today's youth, who don't know what a world without fast, easy, cheap Internet communication looks like fall into that boat. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.