Fantasies of Always-On Connections

I confess to texting someone in the same room.  It can be more efficient and feel less intrusive than interrupting the activity in the room.  But, according to Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT and author, these bits of technology use to replace conversation are adding up to trouble.  In the New York Time’s SundayReview article, “The Flight From Conversation” Turkle chronicles the move to more technology connections and less conversations in the past 15 years.

My favorite quote from the article is “Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone.  Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved.”

My late mother would tell me that no matter how unhealthy the coping device, e.g. eating a pound of See’s candy, it has some element that seems to work in the short-term or we wouldn’t use it to cope.  Despite the crash and the weight gain, the sugar from See’s definitely makes me feel happier and more energetic for some time.  In the same way, constantly connecting via our technology devices seems to work in the short-term to make us feel less lonely.  But, Turkle points out that just the opposite is true.

It is important to note that she is not anti-technology, but rather pro conversation.  Her 15 years of research has shown that technology plays a role in staying connected, but used exclusively only makes us lonelier.  Conversations, on the other hand, tighten our human bond.  Conversations improve our patience and our ability to take another’s point of view by requiring/allowing us to pay attention to many aspects of another.

Soren Gordhamer, author of Wisdom 2.0, makes the contrast of being constantly connected vs. consciously connected.  He touts that we can actively use technology and keep the human connection, but that requires mindfulness.  We must pay attention and make conscious choices.

Going back to the three fantasies, we can compare the effects of technology connection and human connection.  The first is ‘that we will always be heard’.  If you post to hundreds of Facebook friends, you feel heard in the short term, especially when those friends write a few-word comment or Like your post.  In contrast, if you are in the presence of someone who is truly listening, the feeling is very fulfilling and the effect long lasting.  The risk is that we will be in the presence of someone who doesn’t listen and that rejection is harder to accept than no response to a Facebook post.

I interpret the fantasy ‘that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be’ as always wanting control.  As fear-based beings, there is a tendency to manipulate what is happening to feel more in control.  If we can’t control a long store line, we can feel immediate satisfaction from putting our attention to a game on our always-on-you device.  But that only masks the feelings and it separates us from the shared human experience of those around us in the store.  We can make the conscious choice to connect with others around us in conversation.

The ‘never have to be alone’ fantasy is perpetuated by having lots of digital connections.  But being alone is actually a critical part of being connected.  We know ourselves through solitude and connect better with others when we know ourselves.  And the digital connections are ironically making us alone while we are in the physical presence of others.  Just as I text others in the same room, public spaces are becoming clusters of private bubbles as people connect through their devices instead of through live conversations. Again, we can choose the conversation.

Turkle gives specific suggestions for increasing conversations.  Create zones for conversations without devices, such as the kitchen table and the car.  Encourage conversations at work with ‘conversational Thursdays’ right before casual Fridays. And my favorite, “look up, look at on another, and let’s start the conversation.”