We’re living in an environment where we’re doing something that we sense is—and the research shows is—putting us in conflict, and is not really helping community and friendship. We text during funerals. We text during religious services of all sorts. When I ask people why they do that, they admit it—they say, we text during the boring bits. What does it mean for somebody to say, I went to a funeral and when the funeral got boring, I texted? What have they forgotten about the purposes of a funeral? And what are they teaching their children? They forgot that the point of the funeral is just to be together with the other people there.
Davis: What do you think distinguishes the period of technological change we’ve experienced in the past decade or two with the Internet and mobile devices, and other significant periods of technological shift such as the invention of the telephone, the invention of the telegraph, or even the shift from spoken word to writing? Crises of human values are an inevitable part of technological change and of human evolution—what’s different about this one we are going through right now?
Turkle: It’s speed, and our degree of self-awareness about the downside of what our devices are doing to us. What we are experiencing is not an ideological reaction (“Oh, the novel will make us immoral!”). We are seeing, with our children, in our romantic relationships, in our educational system, at work, that we are not paying attention to each other. We are not talking to each other with full attention. And we can do something about it.
Davis: How do you think that your own training in psychotherapy has shaped the way you gathered your research, and the values you espouse?
Turkle: I am very shaped by my psychoanalytic and psychodynamic training. It’s a technology of talk! Whether or not you believe in its specifics, [the psychoanalytic tradition] sensitizes us to our histories, to the ways we say things, not just the content of what we say, to things that we forget but that we can remember in the right context, with the right person. It sensitizes us to the power of conversation as a way of reclaiming ourselves, to the power of self-reflection as a privileged kind of conversation with the self. Psychoanalysis teaches the virtues of solitude.
Davis: You mention the idea that future technologies might be designed with our vulnerabilities in mind, such as encouraging us to disengage after we use them. Do you know of anyone who is actively pursuing this kind of research?
Turkle: Yes, Tristan Harris at Google, who distinguishes between time on our devices and time well spent. Gilles Philips, who has done brilliant work on how our devices hold us in state close to hyper-vigilance, not a good state to be in. Both engineers, both looking toward a very different future.
Davis: During your research you spent some time at device-free camps for kids. Do you think that these should become more widely available? What about device-free camps for adults?
Turkle: I think that different people will find different ways to take a bit of device-free time. For some it will be a camp. For some it will be a kind of sabbath day. Or a daily time out. But I think this will happen.