Lost in Transmission

dialogue

Sherry Turkle wrote the front page cover story in the NYTimes Sunday review on April 22. The title, “The Flight from Conversation,” is about the negative effects of all the digital devices and programs that have come to dominate our lives everywhere. Turkle, an MIT scholar, has studied the impacts of technology on the workplace and other familiar arenas of life. Her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, spawned the Times article.

The gist of the story and her book is that recent developments in social media and the devices that support it are denuding the richness from our major means of relating, speaking to one another.

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, “I am thinking about you.” Or even for saying, “I love you.” But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another's point of view.

This concern is not foreign to this blog and my work. It is not only this particular genre of technology that reduces our capacity to be; it is all modern technology that stands between us and our intrinsic way to be human. It is not only other people that are messy. It is the world itself. Technology rests of a foundation of scientific knowledge about the world obtained by taking on little parts of that world at a time. The result is that we know lots about little pieces of the world, but little about the whole system.

A little thought will lead you to the realization that every time you use a technological device, your smartphone or a light switch, your action is confined by the designer’s or engineer’s limited model of the world used to create the device. Given the inevitable reductionist context for that model, the world that you, the user, are thrown into is but a shadow of reality. The richness that always is present when you are, gets diminished, if not lost entirely.

That’s why conversations become simply the transmission of words without the clothing they wear in face-to-face interactions. The designers of these tools for conversing start with a fundamental error about the nature of talk or messaging in any form. The message is not in the medium, it is shaped by the interpretation of the receiver. Listening is simply another way of interacting with the world. The better choice for describing that interaction and, consequently, the way to design humanizing tools to intervene in that process is the cognitive model of Humberto Maturana.

Maturana claims that the structure of the cognitive system, usually collapsed into the brain, at any moment determines the body’s response to incoming signals. The meaning of incoming messages is created by the history of the receiver, captured in the massively interconnected system that produces memory--a record of all life’s experiences. It’s what the memory does that determines how a message is interpreted. Further, the memory is modified by the interaction, itself, to embody this latest experience. Like the aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice, one does not “hear” the same message twice, even if the words are the same.

Turkle points out that messaging always takes place in a context, a messy one, in her words. Messy gives a negative sense that I think is a bit misleading. I would rather describe it as I did above as rich. The spoken words flow into the body along with all sorts of other signals coming from other features of the world present to the listener. The richness of those signals depends on the depth of his or her presencing; the more present, the richer. With a device in between the speaker and the hearer, there is no presence at all. The nuances that Turkle refers to are all gone.

Relationship is not some thing or feeling; it is the name for actions between two actors. That is it described as something to have comes from our misuse of language that, in turn, comes from our existential belief that we live in a having, not being, mode. Like the saying that if all one has is a hammer the world becomes nothing but a bunch of nails, the world becomes nothing but a lot of things to possess. Actions become reified and become things. In the Being mode, that I claim is essential to flourishing and thence to sustainability, the manner by and the context in which the interactions take place is what is important.

Relationship implies some context of caring, not in the psychological sense of a feeling for each other, but in attending to ends of mutual concern. The concern could be about some action to be done. That’s the dominant use of words; to coordinate action among people. The words are more likely to fit when the speaker understands the context in which both actors are embedded. The words could also be uttered out of concern about the other’s situation, in which case the words ought to reflect the speakers assessment of that condition. Without presence, it is exceedingly difficult to know where the other is, to use the vernacular for someone’s state of being at the moment.

Like all forms of technology, the devices and programs Turkle writes about take root only when they provide some service. They must have some measure of utility, but all, as I note, have a potential to produce unintended consequences due to the inherent nature of technological artifacts. Unfortunately the potential for such outcomes is rarely understood or is simply ignored during the process by which they are born and appear in the marketplace. Big impacts, like global climate change capture headlines. The more insidious ones that fritter away our humanness show up in the often arcane work of scholars and appear only occasionally in public media. I fear that the “Flight from Conversation” will accelerate the impoverishing of the meaning of relationship that is already in poor health.

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