Making The Case For Face To Face In An Era Of Digital Conversation Author Sherry Turkle is concerned that we are outsourcing too many of our conversations to screens and robots. "Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do," she says.

Making The Case For Face To Face In An Era Of Digital Conversation

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A lot of people listening to this show are sending text messages, tweets and emails, too. I am. In fact, you can follow me on Twitter - nprscottsimon, all one word. People waiting for a bus, subway or plane rarely talk to one another. We text - the word's become a verb - people who are elsewhere. Coffee breaks are less a time to talk to co-workers these days than opportunities to check our email. We declare ourselves friends, with a click, with people we'll never meet. It's our times. As Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, notes, some of the same teachers who can scold their students for texting during class will do the same during faculty meetings. Professor Turkle, who wrote the influential "The Second Self," about computers changing our social and interior lives and the book, "Alone Together," has a new book, "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age." Sherry Turkle joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHERRY TURKLE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And could you turn off your iPhone before we begin?


TURKLE: You know, actually, that's interesting you should say that because I gave my iPhone to someone in the studio out of my line of vision because research shows that the very sight of an iPhone anywhere in your line of vision actually changes the conversation. So my phone is gone.

SIMON: Well, thank you.

TURKLE: (Laughter).

SIMON: And the book begins with something you heard from a middle school director...


SIMON: ...That I think will alarm a lot of people.

TURKLE: It does. I was called to consult at a middle school because the directors and the teachers were concerned about what they felt was a lack of empathy among middle school children, which they associated to the presence of technology. The association they made was that when they sit together at lunch, they don't talk to each other. They talk with their phones. And face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It's where we learn to put ourselves in the place of the other.

SIMON: I was interested also that, in addition to maybe reducing empathy, you suggest that all the texting and emailing, interestingly, might reduce solitude...


SIMON: ...Which is also necessary.

TURKLE: If you are constantly stimulated by being called away to the buzzing and th excitement of what's on your phone, solitude seems kind of scary. There's a study that shows that if you take phones and a book or some kind of reading material away from people, after six minutes they're willing to give themselves electroshocks rather than be alone without a device. And if you don't have solitude, that means you come to conversations with other people needing them to sort of buttress you and your fragile sense of self. And you're not really able to hear who they are and what they have to say.

SIMON: Yeah.

TURKLE: So you become less of a friend. You know, if you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely, essentially.

SIMON: I must say, I got through the book without being totally chilled until you introduced the whole idea of - we are approaching a time of robotic companionship.

TURKLE: Yeah, well, you know, I was just interviewed for this article on Hello Barbie, the robot best friend for kids. And Hello Barbie is just one of the new sociable robots that are designed to pretend to have empathy, to care about you and to present themselves as your new best friend. And we have these robots for children, and we have them for the elderly.

SIMON: You actually saw this in a nursing home.

TURKLE: Yes, I did.

SIMON: It was a turning point for you.

TURKLE: I did, so here's the situation in the nursing home. Here's a woman whose son has died, and she wants to tell her story. And she's given one of these pretend friend robots, and she starts to tell her story to this robot. And the robot knows how to do things that will make her feel as though it understands. And everybody around is like - I don't know - like, happy. And to me, it was one of the saddest moments because the question is not whether this woman would talk. The question is - was there anyone listening? And there was no one listening.

SIMON: But surely, you understand that there's just not a lot of people to help elderly people. And for that matter, you can understand where a lot of families don't know is they can trust the person who was hired to care for a senior.

TURKLE: Well, you know, every technology causes us to reflect on our human values. The notion that there are not enough people for the jobs of taking care of our elderly is what needs to be revisited here. If we have come to the point where we're going to give them fake relationships - you know, it's kind of - you can't just let this moment pass. We need to look at our social priorities if we seriously want to say - well, no time to talk to our children. Let's just let a robot chat to them about what it means to be a friend. You're going to get children who don't know how to be a friend, which is where we began this conversation, with children who have not learned how to be a friend.

SIMON: Sherry Turkle of MIT - her new book is "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age." Thanks so much for being with us.

TURKLE: My pleasure.

SIMON: Now I don't know about you - I've got a ton of email to get to now.


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