Episode SummaryAre we losing something with technology? There are two sides to every argument, including this one. Dr. Sherry Turkle is of the belief that there’s enough mounting scientific evidence that points toward loss of empathy and self knowledge due to increasing interaction with machines. In this episode, we discuss Dr. Turkle’s research and her subtle fears for the future, particularly of those about machines that replicate emotions or conversation but that don’t actually feel anything – is the ability to form real connections between two beings at risk of being lost?

GuestDr. Sherry Turkle

ExpertiseSocial Psychology

Recognition in Brief: Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist. Professor Turkle writes on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. She is an expert on culture and therapy, mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics. Sherry has authored four books on evolving relationships in digital culture, and her latest book is the New York Times bestseller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Current AffiliationsMIT

Does Our Love of Devices Reduce Our Ability to Feel for Others?

Dr. Sherry Turkle has written about the problem of loneliness, and how some people think technology can solve what seems to be a growing, modern-day “crisis.” “You can see when people are at a stop sign, or standing in line at a super market, they pull out a device…there’s a new intolerance for a moment alone,” says Sherry.

She describes a recent experiment where people were asked to sit alone without a phone or a book for 15 minutes, and were asked if they thought they might want to give themselves electro shocks after their “alone time.” People initially said no, but after only 6 minutes, some of the participants changed their mind. Turkle believes that people are so used to having some sort of distraction that it’s more important than ever to mark this moment in history, to recognize and talk about our new intolerance for looking within, because “the capacity to do so is essential.”

What is a moment of boredom? Despite the perception of discomfort, it’s not such a bad thing, says Turkle; in fact, it’s an opportunity to look within, but we are fleeing from this notion. A lot of new research points to boredom being a trigger for innovative thinking, but today we turn on an app to fill the void of the moment. “We’re losing respect for boredom and solitude, which are the first steps toward inner conversation; if you don’t know who you are, you turn to other people and need them to be who you need them to be because you don’t know who you are…this is especially important in childhood,” says Sherry.

Turkle points to research to support her conclusions, stating that studies are showing a 40% decline over the last two decades, particularly over the last 10 years, in college-age students’ capacity for empathy. Sherry believes this stems from people turning to phones more often than conversation, and she’s not alone in her opinion of technology as a risk to face-to-face communication. People have always fled boredom and inward conversation to some extent, admits Turkle, but we’re now putting babies into bouncers with a slot for an iPad.

What’s the distinction between empathy and compassion? Sherry believes the two terms are interchanged frequently, but really indicate two different things. She describes compassion as what people are able to feel. People having a hard time looking at another human face and knowing what the expression on that person’s face means reflects lack of empathy, and Sherry believes this is where we’re losing a micro-level of understanding in what it means to feel empathy (which may in turn may also affect how we’re conversing with our technology).

When we think about atrocities that are occurring on the other side of the world, we can imagine and have empathy for those people, but it can be too abstract for us to really feel it in our hearts and have compassion. Those two things – empathy and compassion – can happen at the same moment; however, it takes empathy to first be able to put one’s self in another person’s shoes, which often leads to compassion, and having empathy takes practice.

Bridging the Empathy Gap

How do we combat, from the perspective of Turkle, a potential communication crisis? Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have talked about their decisions to “unplug” their children from electronics and limit screen time – should we all be doing the same for the benefit of future generations?

Sherry believes it really begins with understanding the tangible value of conversation. For one, it’s a valuable workplace skill in more ways than one. “It turns out to be good for productivity, for the bottom line, it gives people breaks and allows them to talk to one another,” she says. The modern day office worker depends on email and often avoids conversation to resolve issues. Resorting to sending an email when a conflict arises, even if with the intention of avoiding animosity, can often result in a seeming lack of compassion.

“It takes being able to recognize a pain or wrong and a desire to make amends.  When you type ‘I’m sorry’ and hit send, you don’t accomplish any of those goals, in personal or business situations,” says Turkle.  Sherry believes there’s a real limitation as to what can be accomplished without face to face conversation, as “full human beings” with messy emotions. She describes her research as not anti-technology, but pro-conversation, a topic touched on in another great interview with The Atlantic’s Lauren Cassani Davis.

Seeing as there’s no slowing down of technologies that connect, and perhaps also separate us, it seems the art of conversation and the proliferation of empathy faces ongoing challenges. All technologies are not created equal though, and some may pose more of a threat than others.

Turkle has spent a lot of time researching the impact of today’s and tomorrow’s technologies on social relations, and the programs she finds the most troubling are those that pretend or convince us that they have feelings for us. “We experience them as friends, but really they don’t feel for us at all; children, who love to talk to conversational bots online, who are getting ready to talk to souped up versions of Siri and take it as a best friend – but there’s nobody home, they’re not being understood but being convinced that they are being understood,” she posits.

In this imitation game, Sherry believes there’s an ardent need to reflect about how this technology is impacting us as human beings. Is it possible that we’ve gotten to the point where we’re ready to accept “as if” conversations as if they’re the real thing, especially children? Whether or not we all agree, Turkle believes we need to challenge ourselves to think about this impact long-term, to determine the implications or how our actions may forever change the nature of our relationships with other humans being, and with our selves.

Image credit: NPR