Picking up her iPhone, Sherry Turkle stuffs it into her handbag. “I’m putting my phone away,” she declares, zipping it into a pocket with a theatrical flourish. “The very presence of a phone on the table is a distraction. Even silent phones inhibit conversations.”
Turkle, a professor of social studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is the world’s conscience when it comes to the modern obsession with technology. Her 2011 bestseller Alone Together explained how social media were destroying family conversation. Now she has decided that enough is enough.
Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, is a “call to action” against the pervasive influence of Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging.
“I’m not here to take your phone away, I’m really not,” she says. “Enjoy all the great things you can have on social media, but don’t forget there are certain things you can only do in a room.”
For many of those now graduating from university, face-to-face conversation is something to be feared, she argues. For the rest of us, pressure to be constantly plugged in and switched on is creating an exhausted, zombie-like workforce.
Phones are stopping us from talking to our children; and thanks to the looming threat of toys such as Hello Barbie — a talking doll infused with artificial intelligence — the problems begin soon after birth.
Turkle is not alone in her concerns.
Karina Linnell, a specialist in the neuroscience of attention at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “There are strong indications that technology is reducing our capacity to concentrate and to sustain attention.”
Turkle, 67, started studying the impact of technological advances when the internet was still a primitive messaging system for a handful of academics. She was one of the first to popularise the term “cyberspace” in the 1990s.
Over the past five years, she has honed three decades of research into understanding what has happened to simple conversation in the digital age.
Hundreds of interviews in schools, offices, universities and homes have shaped her view that people are ready to revolt — to prise themselves away from their screens, at least occasionally, and to rediscover their non-digital selves.
Studies support Turkle’s wealth of anecdotal evidence. A report earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank, revealed that 89% of smartphone owners had used their device at the last social gathering they attended. Yet 82% of those surveyed believed that flicking to their screen had damaged the conversation.
“The most poignant interviews were the ones I did in families where children were, for example, begging parents to stop reading their emails while they are supposed to be playing with them in the bath. I’m talking about little kids saying ‘please play with me’,” she said.
“Unlike a lot of the problems we have in the world, we can start to work on it. University faculty members can tell their students to put away their phones. Business meetings can take place without phones. We can work this out. It’s not too late.”
By Turkle’s reckoning, it was at some point around 2009 that the machines started to take over. This was when smartphones became pervasive. Suddenly, the internet was always everywhere.
While there are many heroes and villains in Turkle’s story, she believes the behaviour of parents lies at the heart of the problems.
Mothers who berate their children to put away their phones often do so while holding on tight to their own screens. Even when they made an effort to spend time with their children, some parents in Turkle’s study were forced to admit to phone addictions.
The same Pew report that exposed our guilt-ridden phone compulsions also suggested that mobile internet technology brought educational benefits — that parents could always handle the barrage of questions fired by an inquisitive child.
“Yeah, fine, but that’s why I came across kids saying things like, ‘Daddy, stop Googling, I want to talk to you’,” said Turkle. “When I talked more to that kid, she said Googling answers turned a conversation into a series of facts.”
She found other teenagers with similar concerns. One 15-year-old complained about receiving a Wikipedia-based lecture about Woody Allen’s favoured cinematographer after observing that his films look similar.
In any case, most parents make no pretence at pedagogy in their use of phones. One father, a divorced management consultant, told Turkle a story about the day he joined his seven-year-old daughter on a school excursion — and posted a stream of happy pictures on Facebook showing the two of them together.
“Finally, the daughter says, ‘but you haven’t said a word to me’,” Turkle recalled.
Linda Papadopoulos, a psychology director at London Metropolitan University, agrees that chasing “likes” on social media “can work to the detriment of who we really are” and that banning phones from the dinner table is a simple way to start imposing boundaries.
It is tempting to question whether Turkle’s victimisation of the mobile phone is wholly fair. Yet the boundaries between work and leisure are no longer set by office hours.
Turkle’s research found extensive evidence of “businesses where employees are on a state of high alert”, never sure what to do about emails that turn up from their boss at 2am.
Is it really an addiction to a tiny screen that interrupts bath-time and walks through the park? Or is that just the reality of modern work?
“No, no, no, no, no,” Turkle said. “I am sticking to my guns – a lot of what we are calling emergencies is our anxiety. There is plenty of room for people to do jobs that are very demanding and then still say to themselves: ‘When am I doing my job, when am I just using my phone as an excuse because I am just used to being with the phone all the time?’”
To haul humanity back from the brink of submission to technology will require a change of behaviour on the part of today’s children — the first demographic cohort to spend their entire lives enmeshed with tablets and smartphones.
“I saw hope in those aged 14 and under,” Turkle said. “They take technology for granted. They are growing up with parents who are completely in the game — with parents preoccupied with the phone. So they are like, ‘OK, phone, you are an ambivalent object’.
“I love the kids — and there are many — who say, ‘I’m not going to raise my kids the way my parents are raising me, but the way my parents think they are raising me’.”
Turkle claims that phones are stunting emotional development. She observed children in school canteens who no longer talk to one another, but share jokes and video clips on their phones. Eye contact is increasingly rare. Empathy is facing extinction.
Dr Richard Graham, an adolescent and technology addiction psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital in central London, believes many teenagers are “enslaved” by their phones.
“Some young people are persecuted by the notifications on their smartphones through the day and into the night,” he said. “Schools that ban mobile phones achieve better results.”
With artificial intelligence now permeating more aspects of our lives, Turkle is on guard. She is aligned with the likes of Stephen Hawking and the Paypal founder Elon Musk, who are using their respective resources to warn that computers could one day rule over the human race.
She is picking her battles. While it is easy to get worked up about clothes being embedded with microchips to tell us how many calories we have consumed, that should not do much psychological harm, she argues.
She disapproves of virtual reality pornography produced by Facebook that allows users to pretend they are having a real sexual experience while wearing a 3D headset. Nonetheless, that should do no damage to the species, she believes.
As our conversation ended, Turkle reached back into her bag to retrieve her phone.
“Every day, I say ‘thank God for this’,” she said,turning the gadget over in her hands. “Dick Tracy only had a two-way wrist radio, and I have this? Please don’t take away my phone!”
Additional reporting: Oliver Thring
Talk? They’d rather tap
Among American university students, there is a new code of practice known as “the rule of three”, writes Iain Dey.
If you are with half a dozen people, sitting in the pub or having dinner, it is socially acceptable to look at your phone — as long as three or more are paying attention to whoever is speaking.
The net effect, according to Sherry Turkle, is that conversation is much more superficial as half the group is always being brought back up to speed with what has been said.
Topics tend to be lighter anyway, Turkle found. Among students, politics is mainly discussed on social media to avoid arguments face to face.
Having been brought up in an age when facts can be Googled, they prefer to research their thoughts, then compose a witty tweet, rather than have a debate.
In their romantic lives too, Generation Y avoids conversation, using dating apps such as Tinder rather than bar room chit-chat to find a partner.
University professors are so concerned about this “flight from conversation” that some are awarding course credits to students who turn up to talk about their thoughts.
“I love the 18-year-old who said to me ‘Conversation? I’ll tell, you what’s wrong with conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say’, ” Turkle said.
Most of her students try to conduct conversation via email — arguing that they will structure their questions better if they write them down.