My English 211 students have spent the last two weeks reading a book called “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age.” The author is Sherry Turkle, a media scholar from MIT who has spent over thirty years studying the relationship between people and technology. Based on interviews with hundreds of teens and adults, her 2015 book makes the case that no matter our age, we are all increasingly vulnerable to a technology that distracts us both from the benefits of solitude and from the journey of conversation.
At the dinner table, in the classroom, at the office, and even in courtship, Turkle argues, we are letting our phones draw us away from things like eye contact, empathy, deep attention, and conversations that matter. She explains all this in a mere 360 pages. My students might tell you it’s been a long two weeks.
Full disclosure. I don’t own a smart phone and use a flip phone only for traveling. So my vulnerabilities are different from yours. I’m more tempted to be an isolationist, reading only things that confirm my fears about the price we pay for technology, and believing myself above the sometimes bizarre behavior that has become the new normal in exactly one decade. I do not know the pull of a buzzing phone when I’m trying to concentrate on something — or someone — so I realize I’m working from a major deficit of empathy with pretty much everyone.
But I see and read things that bother me. Couples out to eat and not talking, or sharing only what is on their phones. Small kids trying to talk to their parents, who are distracted and thus only half present. People of all ages anxious to escape solitude and boredom — two essential ingredients for creativity, deep thought, and self-understanding. I feel my own temptation to mistake knowledge for the ability to look up things only when I need them.
Among other topics, Turkle discusses the new phenomenon of arguing by text. Married and dating couples are discovering that those inevitable fights that come in any relationship can either be conducted the old-fashioned way—with words exchanged by two people who are in the same room—or the new way. This way involves retreating to separate corners to hashtag things out via text messages. Some couples even keep a “fight archive” of their disagreements.
Before you laugh, hear them out. Face-to-face arguments, they insist, can get ugly. In the heat of the moment, tempers flare, and people say things they regret. Removed from the explosive boxing ring, however, they can edit what they plan to say and carefully lay out their side of the argument. The wrong things won’t be said. The messiness of the disagreement can be smoothed over. A more scripted and civilized debate will get the problem solved without the volatility of spontaneous talk. Refereed by technology, relationships will be easier.
OK. Now you can laugh.
Of course, wise counselors have always advised couples to “fight fair” — to avoid insults, to separate the current argument from other issues, to leaven our speech with phrases like “What I hear you saying is …” For that matter, the entire country could use a lesson on how to disagree without belittling or demonizing our opponents. But those discussions require empathy and tone of voice and body language. They require a commitment to be honest, to control tempers and to really hear each other. For that, we need our eyes and ears more than our thumbs.
The fairy tale of digital arguing teaches exactly the wrong message — that there is a clean, tension-free way to be in a relationship. And the idea of a “fight archive” is downright charming. Couples used to make photo albums. Now I can picture them celebrating their anniversaries, phones out, fondly replaying the battles of the previous year:
HIM: Oh, look, dear! There’s the day I asked you what was wrong and you got mad that I didn’t already know what was wrong. Those were good times.
HER: I know! You still have no idea, do you?
And thanks to the “fight archive,” every word is there forever. Which is sure easier than hiring a court stenographer to come over with one of those little typewriters anytime someone says, “What was THAT look for?”
All this sounds like Festivus, the “Seinfeld” holiday where Frank Costanza gathered his family around so he could, as he put it, “tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year.” In the digital world, “the airing of grievances” is now only a swipe away.
Scripture famously says that love keeps no record of wrongs. Welcome to Love 2.0.