Few have realized this more than Sherry Turkle, a research professor and author from New England who has dedicated much of her life to understanding and explaining the impact of new technology on every part of our communities. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, she emphasizes the significant effect of technological advances such as social media, smartphones, and the internet on the human race in an attempt to bring attention to her concerns that technology, when out of balance with other parts of life, is toxic and that the path our lonely generation is on is leading us toward a dark future.
Only by understanding the role of pure conversation in society and the positive impact it can have on the world can we realize technology's proper place in our lives and take advantage of that realization to change our society's course from disaster to discovery.
Turkle details the significant value of conversation by defining its connection to our
"Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully
present to one another, we learn to listen. It is where we develop the capacity for empathy. It's
where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood."
Turkle contends that one of the most foundational aspects of life is the special connection found solely in the simplicity of everyday conversation. We complete each other and ourselves with dialogue, but our connections aren't real anymore — we choose to put on masks made of filters and emojis to hide our imperfections and showcase only the best versions of ourselves because we are afraid of the vulnerability that comes with the trust necessary to build a relationship. Many of us have forgotten that sometimes the only way to grow is through pain or failure. It is often adversity that teaches the most profound lessons.
Today's generation desires a world that is problem-free, a reality where everyone is treated equally, and can feel valued, respected, and important, but when they realize that is not always the case, instead of speaking out against societal inconsistency and refining our world, they create their own digital world where everything can be perfect. But clever formulas and algorithms aren't the answer. We will never invent a solution to loneliness without giving up our humanity and becoming machines ourselves. Turkle emphasizes that no app or device will ever be able to complete us like other people can:
"From the early days, I saw that computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of
friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the
demands of intimacy."
Commitment scares us, so we turn to our phones for a risk-free, artificial validation that is no more real than a shark costume is a live shark. We're afraid of broken hearts and the pain that comes from being hurt by someone we love, so we choose not to truly love anyone and instead build machines in search of a perfect, utopian community where no one is ever wounded or alone. We become so immersed in our online world that we lose our fascination with reality and disconnect from our friends, family, and neighbors. It's funny how the same phone that brings us closer to distant friends we rarely see tends to separate us from the
people we're around the most.
Technology is useful in the context of healthy conversation. If used well, it can enhance our dialogue in ways we never could have imagined and bring billions of people to together, but if it is not, it has the potential to permanently isolate us from reality while stealing our humanity and stagnating our relationships.
"Technology enchants; it makes us forget what we know about
life. The new—any old new—becomes confused with progress."
All that glitters is not gold, and all that is new is not good. We must learn how to moderate our use of technology before we
are completely consumed by our machines.
"We are being silenced by our technologies—in a way, 'cured of talking.'"
Technology is not a substitute for, but rather a supplement to our relationships. However, human relationships are risky, messy, and demanding, and we want to experience their benefits without the less desirable products of human interaction. We don't want to risk experiencing pain, vulnerability, or loss, so we close our mouths, wiggle our thumbs, and turn to a digital world where we can have the illusion of freedom from our imperfect realities: a seemingly perfect world without conversation.
The answer to this epidemic lies in a community full of individuals who aren't perfect but are together in their imperfection. A group of people who can understand and support each other as they move forward together on their journey to living purposeful lives through a voluntary unity that is stronger than any Facebook friendship or Snapchat streak.
If we are to change the way we communicate with others, we must first learn to see and hear them, not their highlight reels and social media stories. The first step back to true community and wholesome dialogue is empathy. If we don't have the ability to understand others in their own context, we will never be able to connect with them on a deeper level. Somewhere between our thoughts and our thumbs we have lost that foundational empathy. We will never find it unless we can find the courage to step outside of our perspective, context, and inherit bias and into someone else's.
When it comes to relationships, we often focus more on our differences than all the ways we are the same. Our perception of others is what often keeps us from reaching out to them. The only way we could ever break the negative cognizance of ourselves and others is by overcoming the fears, biases, and trepidations we each have inside ourselves and learning to listen.
We've learned how to become put on a fake faces because our society values smiling faces more than the words that can come from them, so we continue along silently through life, updating our personal billboards and doing everything we can to keep the world from knowing who we really are because we are trained to so. We all push our brokenness and loneliness away from the surface and go right on smiling like nothing is wrong with us. But what do we really gain if we hide our true selves under filters and behind screens that make us feel good? We are rapidly losing our identities, and if nothing is done to stop it, there will come a day when we will become nothing more than walking shells of humans with minds that have forgotten how to think and beating hearts that have forgotten how to feel.
What if we put down our phones for as little as an hour every week and instead of staring into blue light, choose to look another soul dead in the eyes and have an honest conversation? What if we remembered how to see someone else, not for how many followers they have, but for the unique and beautiful individual that they are?
If everyone did this — if everyone had true conversations and discovered the thriving community hiding just beneath the surface —many of our world's problems would fade away in a heartbeat. Yes, conversation connects one with others, but it allows for self-discovery as well. When we are engaged in conversation, we get to know others and they us, but through external dialogue we can also get to know ourselves and better understand our identity and significance. The audible word is one of the most powerful
displays of humanity; dialogue is the intentional use of audible words for mutual self-expression.
We each hold this earth-shaking power resting inside us, but like a dormant volcano we rarely take advantage of its potential for good. The only solution to loneliness is relationship built by healthy dialogue. We must learn to use technology in moderation along with our powerful capacity for dialogue if we hope to move forward together as a species.