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Conversation’s just fine, thanks: a response to Sherry Turkle

Every once in a while, my Iron Blogger group decides to take on a common topic. At our meet-up this week, a handful of us agreed to take on last week’s Sherry Turkle op-ed in the New York Times. It’s called “The Flight from Conversation,” and it seems to cover some of the same territory as her book “Alone Together”: namely, that we’re allowing gadgets to get in the way of interpersonal communication, favoring “sips” of online contact over a “big gulp of real conversation.”

I disagree with Turkle on both her premise and its conclusion. I’m just not convinced that the anecdotes she collects amount to more than the kind of bogus trend story NY Times is notorious for. Worse, it has the particular flavor of a moral panic, where the issue raised threatens to disrupt the social order. But just as teen texting, comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, rock and roll, and many others failed to unravel the threads of society, we may just make it through the “handheld gadget” era.

In fact, of course, the sort of conversations we have today are the result of refinement over thousands of years, and it would require extraordinary evidence to support the extraordinary claim that this latest change is different in kind and the one that will finally undo us.

And really, the examples Turkle cites don’t seem new. Quiet offices, 16-year-old boys who wish they knew how to hold a conversation, high school students who don’t want to speak with their parents about dating — are these really the products of mobile devices, or the way things always have been? Am I mistaken to think that a high school sophomore in 1952 would have wanted an alternative to asking his father for dating advice, even if he couldn’t characterize it as a sophisticated AI?

More importantly, though, I object to the idea that the inclusion of technology in conversation makes it any less “real,” or even less good. Certain kinds of conversations seem less likely, like those between passengers on a bus or elevator, or, say, patients in a waiting room. But — and I don’t mean to be flip here — so what? These aren’t the “big gulp” conversation Turkle’s concerned with. What’s more, they seem institutionally biased towards extroverts.

I will grant, though, that I’ve seen plenty of occasions where somebody has been rude or anti-social with a device in hand. But they’re rude because they’re violating social norms and expectations, not because those specific norms and expectations are fixed and unchanging. To the extent that gadgets affect our conversations, communities need to evaluate their own experiences, and come to their own conclusions. At South by Southwest this year, for example, I was very comfortable using my phones at meals or in conversations, because that was the community norm there. Turkle’s model doesn’t seem to account for that.

She does get close though, with the suggestion that certain physical spaces or times are gadget-free. I like that suggestion, even if I disagree with the reasoning that drives it. Coming up with a smart way to manage our relationships so that people don’t feel neglected doesn’t require throwing away the smartphone, it just requires being sensitive and respectful to what people expect, gadgets or otherwise.