The week of November 15, 2015

Our devices are not turning us into unfeeling robots

By Jenny Davis

In a cultural moment of political tensions, citizen protests, and social shifts, empathy can be a key interpersonal tool. Certainly, it is worth investigating how the technologies with which we work, communicate, and play affect empathy and the ways that we relate to and connect with one another. In her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle offers some unsettling answers.

Turkle argues that mediating technologies have left us less likely to converse face-to-face with our fellow human beings. Having lost conversation, we’ve also lost our capacity to empathize. The technologies that supposedly bring us all together, she argues, in fact disconnect us from each other—and also from ourselves.

Using national statistics, ethnographic accounts, in-depth interviews, and personal experiences, Reclaiming Conversation makes a compelling case. Turkle tells an attractive story for the many of us who sometimes feel isolated, out of touch, or left behind by rapid social and technological shifts. However, this is a story with a shaky foundation in empirical data, clouded by false distinctions between digital and physical. By offering a clear and concise—though ultimately unsubstantiated—answer to the technology question, Reclaiming Conversation obscures more than it reveals.

Turkle has long been concerned with the effects of digital media upon social and psychological well-being. Her previous book warned of eroding conversation; now she’s concerned about a particular consequence of conversation’s demise: the decline of empathy. The thesis of Reclaiming Conversation is that mediated technologies are making people less attune to one another’s thoughts and feelings. “We are being silenced by our technologies,” she says, “in a way, ‘cured of talking.’” She cautions that “These silences—often in the presence of our children—have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life.” 

She claims that empathy is part of our very humanness, but that we lose the capacity through a lack of eye contact and an excess of screens. She cites interviews with college students who would rather text than call, parents who have retreated from the losing battle of device-free family meals, and individuals who struggle to be alone with their thoughts, itching for the distraction of a streaming newsfeed.

By offering a clear and concise answer to the technology question, Reclaiming Conversation obscures more than it reveals.

Lest she leave readers in despair, though, she suggests we can reinstate conversation and collectively reconnect—a hope bolstered by an apparent readiness for change among the populace. Indeed, she documents a marked shift in people’s attitudes towards technology over the past few years, accompanied by the motivation to “fix” how we communicate and relate. When she published Alone Together in 2011, her technological critique provoked resistance. Today, Turkle says, things are different. “We recognize that we crave a feeling of being ‘always on’ that keeps us from doing our best, being our best,” she says, and “[s]o we allow ourselves a certain disenchantment with what technology has made possible.”

Throughout the book (and in an interview with the Atlantic), Turkle cites a study of young campers. It’s an example meant to to demonstrate both our technology-induced empathic demise as well as a path to recovery. Published in 2014, the study finds that children who attended a device-free summer camp for five days were better able to recognize others’ feelings in videos and photographs than children who attended camps in which devices were allowed. The conclusion seems obvious: Stepping away from our screens can recharge our empathy for one another. “[T]here is good news,” Turkle says. “Despite the pull of our technology, we are resilient.”

The camp study offers powerful support for Turkle’s story. However, a careful look at the study (and at Turkle’s argument more generally), reveals some serious cracks. Simply put, the data from the camp study do not support its conclusions, nor those on which Turkle rests her argument. Check out this longer critique of the camp study if you want the nitty-gritty, but summarily, the findings showed no difference in final empathy scores between campers who did versus did not have their devices at camp.

Rather, the two groups were given empathy pretests under drastically different conditions, resulting in one group (the non-device group) beginning with significantly worse scores. In posttests given at the end of camp, the non-device group looked like their empathy had improved in ways that the connected campers’ empathy did not. However, this change was driven by poor scores from the first test, caused most likely by differences in how the pretest was administered, not by anything that happened or did not happen at camp. Again, the final scores were almost identical.

Ironically, the findings from the camp study show that screens themselves have no effect on empathy—exactly the opposite of what its authors (and Turkle) report. The camp study, relying on shoddy methods and inaccurate conclusions, exemplifies how cultural fears and emotional appeals can facilitate the spread of unsubstantiated claims, cloaked in science, like those which proliferate in Reclaiming Conversation.

Treating conversation and digitally mediated interaction as mutually exclusive creates a false distinction. In fact, conversation happens through multiple media, in fits and starts, sometimes simultaneously.

I know these claims are unsubstantiated because I’ve studied empathy (in the form of role-taking), and I am familiar with that literature. Despite Turkle’s assertion that “[r]eal people, with their unpredictable ways, can seem difficult to contend with after one has spent a stretch in simulation,” a body of data show digital media’s empathy-improving potential. Autism researchers have long used digital tools to improve empathy, and researchers at Stanford have a lab team dedicated to improving empathy through digital tech. Research on video games shows that when people play games in which their characters help others, this translates into generosity and caring in the player’s non-game life. Similarly, carefully designed virtual reality (VR) simulations have reduced stereotypes and increased perceived self–other connection (the mechanism behind empathy) toward both the elderly and people with disabilities.

Certainly, digital media is not always beneficial and sometimes, technology impedes social connection (see: the dreaded dinner-table companions who refuse to look up from their phones). But treating conversation and digitally mediated interaction as mutually exclusive creates a false distinction. In fact, conversation happens through multiple media, in fits and starts, sometimes simultaneously.

For example, in my own ethnographic work on social media, one participant explained how his decision to temporarily leave Facebook actually resulted in discomfort when meeting friends in person. “It was a little awkward,” he reported, “like we had missed a beat or something.” It wasn’t that he or his friends were unprepared or ill-equipped to talk, but that he had missed part of an ongoing dialogue. The social network site was part of his social glue, and his absence from this central platform translated into a degree of disconnect from his social relationships. The conversation continued online, but he was not a part of it.

To claim, as Turkle does, that a move to digital media is “a move away from conversation” mistakenly defines conversation as only that which can happen through speech. This mistake reflects the common fallacy of digital dualism, or constructing digital and physical in opposition to one another, and dismissing the digital as inherently less real. Turkle’s earlier work has been held up as the quintessential example of digital dualism, and the trend continues in Reclaiming Conversation.

In this vein, the false dualisms between physical and digital, virtual and actual, are not only fallacious, but also highly normative and arguably ableist. Turkle refers to face-to-face conversation as “the most human—and humanizing—thing we do.” I can’t help but wonder, who is this “we” to whom she refers? When her participants report that “text is fine” or that digital technologies help them navigate emotionally intense interactions, Turkle dismisses these accounts as illusory, an excuse to escape from the “messiness” of everyday real life.

Under the right conditions, digitally mediated text, images, and interactions improve our ability to understand each other, reduce stereotypes, and increase helping behavior.

But what of the messiness of human variation? Bodies, minds, and relationships come in all forms. Statistically, it is highly unlikely that one form of communication is most effective for all people. Of course, face-to-face conversation can be meaningful and powerful. This needn’t remove the power from digitally mediated forms of talk. Some people are literally enabled by digital technologies. For instance, those who are hearing impaired, stutter, or lack body control, find new communicative opportunities in digital technologies that allow users to express themselves and listen to others without the requirement of physical voice. People with high levels of anxiety may be able to enter new friendships and maintain existing ones in ways that were not previously possible. People with flitting and dynamic attention patterns may finally feel at home in a multitasking environment. The assumed preference for face-to-face conversation presumes a particular human model, to the exclusion of those who, inevitably, fit a different mold. 

Conversation, relationships, and even psychological processes evolve with and through technologies of the time and their effects vary across contexts. It’s smart to investigate how technologies affect us, whose interests they serve, what they mean for personal and social well-being, and the conditions under which these factors vary. Such investigations require broader theoretical and ideological parameters than those few dualist assumptions on which Turkle relies.

Under the right conditions, digitally mediated text, images, and interactions improve our ability to understand each other, reduce stereotypes, and increase helping behavior. It therefore behooves us to understand the conditions under which these positive benefits persist, and the conditions under which they dissipate. Definitive blanket statements about technologies’ deleterious effects indulge and feed on cultural concerns while undermining and creating obstacles for more nuanced and productive lines of inquiry.

Those who disagree with Turkle’s claim that we are more connected to devices and less connected to each other find themselves in the position of technological apologist, enthusiast, or utopian—intellectual positions that they may well not hold. I certainly don’t, yet when addressing Turkle’s work—in Reclaiming Conversation and otherwise—I find myself coming to technology’s defense.

Perhaps this would be less consequential were Turkle not the predominant public voice of academic thought with regard to the social effects of technology. However, as a prominent professor at a highly prominent institution (MIT), Turkle and her message take up a lot of space. Through book tours, interviews, op-eds, and TED Talks, Turkle’s message strongly shapes the public imagination. Therefore, Turkle’s voice is one with which others speaking on the topic of technology must now contend. The downfall of sociality then becomes the base from which public commentators start (and have to dig out of) before addressing the diverse set of questions that occupy their research agendas. Ironically, in trying to save conversation, Reclaiming Conversation frames a debate that largely shuts the conversation down.

Jenny L. Davis is an assistant professor of sociology at James Madison University and co-editor of the Cyborgology blog.

Illustration by J. Longo