I am on sabbatical currently, which means I get to read a lot of books. One of the most profound and disturbing among the many I’ve been reading is Sherry Turkle’s new Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015). Turkle is a professor at MIT, author of Alone Together and a researcher into how technology is reshaping human life and community. This book focuses on how digital devices are eroding our capacity for conversation, deeper connection, and generative solitude.
Turkle spent a lot of time interviewing people of a variety of ages (many of them millennials) about their everyday lives, including family, friendships, education, and work. The picture she paints is sobering. In the past 20 years, empathy among college students has dropped 40% (most of it in the past decade). The more preoccupied with technology we are, the more tenuously we’re linked to community. People find themselves overwhelmed with so many choices and possibilities that they struggle to focus on any one. “In the new communications culture, interruption is not experienced as interruption but as another connection” (p. 37). But such connections through technology are thin and fluid; they have nothing of the embodied presence or richness of face-to-face conversation.
The most heartbreaking stories in Turkle’s book are about children frustrated by their parents constantly turning away toward their devices. The common narrative that children are the ones lost behind devices begins, for Turkle, with parents’ own behavior. Children find themselves competing with devices for their parents’ attention and generally lose, so they turn toward devices themselves.
Along the way, a whole generation seems to be losing the capacity to navigate conversations of depth. Relationships are formed and broken off by text message. Employers describe employees who want to communicate with colleagues or clients by email at any cost rather than pick up the phone or talk in person. The kinds of solitary moments that can be so generative for creativity and imagination (as well as self-reflection) are being replaced with an endless checking of devices. Our brains reward us with a high when we do so, but the connections often never really land anywhere.
Turkle writes about classrooms, workplaces, and homes. But the chapter that begs to be written is about spirituality—about spaces and practices of faith and worship. At the heart of all the world’s great faith traditions is attentiveness and presence—to God, to ourselves, to one another, to the world. Whether through prayer or meditation, being still is central to experiencing the sacred.
But in the culture we find ourselves in today, such deep, sustained attention to anything or anyone seems a vanishing proposition. We are losing the habits that make it possible. What does prayer look like in a world of “continuous partial attention” (in the words of technology scholar Linda Stone)? If we can hardly hold a conversation with a friend, colleague, or partner anymore, how can we sustain one with God?