Think Before You Give Your Six-year Old a Smart Phone

SmartPhone-Child

Sherry Turkle has done it again. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, outdoes her previous book in showing us the dark side of all this wondrous new personal technology. Jonathan Franzen, reviewing the book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review Section captures it much better than I ever could. Here is the key paragraph from his review.

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique, with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-¬≠reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Turkle, herself, wrote a short capsule of the book for the NYTimes shortly before the review quoted above. Her argument is focused on the loss of empathy associated with young people who cannot put their phones down long enough to hold a meaningful conversation.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Empathy is a proxy for the care I argue is central to flourishing. The two are always intimately linked. To care for someone is to act empathetically, that is, with awareness of the other’s concerns and with a focus on what is going on over there. This kind of care is active, not affective. It is the essence of human being and has largely disappeared over the evolution of modernity.

Technology always places itself between human actors; that is its intrinsic nature. It turns most actions into mechanical transactions because it hides the context that provides meaning to the actors. The kind of technology Turkle writes about, smart phones mostly, diminishes the richness of interpersonal conversations, the primary way we relate to other people. I have been making this argument for a long time, but lack the hard data and clarity that Turkle provides.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

But we have forgotten just that, who we are. The amnesia of our “self” is not just the result of smart phones. It is the assault on human Being that began hundreds of year ago when the whole self that developed in earlier times was turned into a machine with many parts by the new sciences of the Enlightenment.

I see the task of recovering our fundamental humanness as being made harder by the trends she reports, but she finds some redeeming features. Turkle writes, “Every technology asks us to confront human values. This is a good thing, because it causes us to reaffirm what they are.” I disagree; technology, as her examples show, hides our values. That is the problem, not a route to the solution. This statement surprised me. Much as I admire her work, this doesn’t fit. The very nature of the technology she is writing about silences any questioning we might have about what it is doing to us.

One of her examples is about a young woman who is described as being of “the ‘app generation,’ which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.” There is no questioning of values here; only the creations of new ones that are less humane.

There is much more in both her article and the very thoughtful book review by Jonathan Franzen. I will order the book and read it and report here after I finish. She finishes the NYTimes piece with a positive take on how to reverse the trend. She notes a case where phones were banned during a five-day camp experience.

After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

The last line is very powerful. The obverse is that empty conversations are dehumanizing. We will have to find better ways that to isolate people for extended periods. That doesn’t sound like a broadly practical solution. My own experience with my grandchildren tells me that they are already hooked. It’s up, in part, to their parents to provide time for meaningful conversations with no distractions. Turkle mentions a child who longs for such times spent at home. Maybe it will be necessary to design and offer conversation classes at the primary school level; children already own these devices by then. That would be a place to teach empathy as well since empathy is a form of listening to another’s spoken and unspoken words.

Since I also believe that, contra to Turkle, technology blinds our human values, the importance of empathy and care must be explicitly raised and put into practice. We are, instead, transforming our education of the young around the value of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). What a terrible mistake. We need adults who can access the values tied to their uniqueness as human beings, not those created by the current political economy. A world without empathy and care is a world without the possibility of flourishing. If we can choose to put STEM into our educational system, we can choose to match it with a curriculum about empathy and care and other human values. If we fail to do that, these values will become ever more defeated by the hand of all those devices that the STEM path will undoubtedly create.

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