Sherry Turkle is at it again in the NYT. When we expect more from technology, her story goes, we inevitably expect less from ourselves. In a high-tech world, we flee from the emptiness of ourselves into a world of virtual or emotionally impoverished connections. But such disembodied connections are no remedies for our loneliness.
Texting, in particular, is a pitiful substitute for conversation, for an indispensable way for getting to know who you are. Consciousness, of course, means “knowing with,” and being with others is only possible, the Platonic dialogue (for example) suggests, in the full sense when talking face-to-face with someone who has your full attention A genuine conversation depends on all the interlocutors believing, for a while, that nothing is more important than what they have to say to one another.
Who can deny that texting, twittering, and such have impoverished the conversations we still have? Our exceedingly portable devices allow us to be talking and texting more or less simultaneously. And a rapidly developing skill, Turkle notices, is faking eye contact with the person physically with you while genuinely focusing attention on one or more texting partners.
It’s surely self-deception to believe that such multitasking assists in cognitive development. Everything is said sloppily and superficially. Texting when driving, studies are showing in a big way, might be more dangerous than drinking when driving. Rapidly communicating with several people simultaneously surely contributes to our attention deficit disorder. The brain is surely overstimulated, with quick calculations replacing reflection or even appropriate responses to social instincts. The overload of the “rapid response” portions of our brains ain’t producing some “cognitive surplus” that technophiles celebrate.
So a very obvious educational reform—one, I admit, I haven’t had the guts to implement—is to make students check all electronic devices at the classroom door. The students allegedly or really taking notes on laptops are just about always also communicating to folks not in the class (at my nice college, I hear, a good number of girls are even chatting with mom) too. And laptops and smart (or even genius) phones produce plenty of gossipy side conversations in class. That might be in some ironic sense good for in-class bonding, but at the expense of any sustained focus on the content of—the conversation that is—the class.
You might say that this stuff wouldn’t happen if professors were more entertaining or inspirational, if they had, for example, a more spectacular multimedia, PowerPoint and more, display going on in the front of the class. I readily admit that the pressure is on in our attention-deficit time for professors to be more engaging—although more in the way the young Steve Martin was on SNL than the way Socrates was.
But even the successfully demagogic professor produces, at best, ambiguous results. I sometimes hear about something deliberately perverse or ridiculous I said in class from students not in the class just a few minutes after class is over. They heard it through the text-vine!
Let me change teams for a while by making a couple pro-techno points. I am sometimes touched by the use students make of Facebook. Things they would have said in their diaries or just left unsaid they post, imagining that their deep thoughts or emotional reactions will be immediately shared and appreciated by others. Sure, that’s not Socratic dialogue. But it’s something… There’s some poetry on those Facebook walls!
While it’s impossible to have a real conversation through texting, it’s very easy to do it, I think, through email. Socratic dialogues, after all, are written down for us. Email responses can be lengthy, considered, and leisurely, even if they usually aren’t. An email conversation can last a lot longer than a face-to-face one.
Now to return to the begnning: The deepest of deep thinkers Pascal said that most of our misery comes from being unable to sit quietly alone in our rooms—to be, as Turkle says, alone with ourselves. Experiencing and enjoying solitude depends on having a real sense of personal identity, a truthful and confident inward life.
Who can deny that being on-line everywhere and all times—always being connected—makes us more miserable in exactly the way Pascal describes? The Beach Boys’ celebration of the reverie of simply being “in my room” makes less and less sense to us.