Book review: Sherry Turkle laments the disconnected lives that our connected future might bring

The psychologist explores the ironies of our smartphone age, when we are more reachable than ever before - but in some ways ever more isolated

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2015, 9:00pm

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
by Sherry Turkle
Penguin Press

Smartphones are ruining relationships. If you don't agree, read Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and you'll begin to see the corrosive impact on human communication lurking in your handheld device.

Turkle offers example after example of how digital communication has altered not just the way we convey information, but the emotional context as well.

Turkle is a clinical psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Her books include The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

In Reclaiming Conversation, she weaves anecdotes and insights from three decades of researching the psychology behind how people use technology.

Children today communicate using texts, social media and emails, but their ability to relate to other people has declined substantially. They fail to develop empathy, emotional intelligence or social bonds. It's no wonder online bullying is widespread, considering that kids can spit insults at each other and never see hurt on another child's face.

Kids often pick up their habits from adults. Turkle relays the story of a family where the children are banned from bringing their phones to the dinner table, but the mother spends the meal checking emails.

In another family, a teenage son and his parents argue only over email because in-person confrontations might turn into shouting matches and feelings being hurt. The conclusion that digital communication seems so much easier than live conversation comes up repeatedly in Reclaiming Conversation. But as Turkle points out, taking the easy route often leads to unintended consequences.

In the world of dating, the advantages that technology offers, of prescreening potential mates and meeting people you wouldn't otherwise cross paths with, have soured. It's now common to break up over text. Many daters who say they wouldn't want that treatment admit they've dished it out themselves. Dating apps like Tinder have simplified meeting singles to the act of swiping left or right.

People end up overwhelmed by choices. One man found that after dating a woman for a few weeks and liking her, he couldn't commit for fear of missing out on meeting other available women.

At work, colleagues prefer to look at a screen than interact with each other. People send emails during meetings instead of paying attention to who's presenting. Some companies solely operate remotely with co-workers, never meeting in person, which Turkle asserts is often a detriment to the bottom line.

Turkle does a good job of illustrating the many ironies digital communication has created. Phones are ubiquitous, but phone calls are not. People are more connected than ever via social media, email accounts and instant messenger, but some feel lonely much of the time.

People leave digital footprints that companies and government use to track us. That loss of privacy might seem like the cost of admission to the digital world, but Turkle argues we have given up too much too soon.

Reclaiming Conversation reminds readers what's at stake when devices win over face-to-face conversation, and that it's not too late to conquer those bad habits. However, even though "reclaiming" is part of the title, Turkle fails to offer effective alternatives or strategies for change that would have left the reader feeling empowered. However, the book, at the very least, should get readers talking.

Tribune News Service