Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age has been on my reading list for a while now. I’m in the process of reading it and was stopped cold by something on page 54. Turkle is talking about “the flight from conversation.” The flight from conversation basically means kids these days—and yes, their parents too—don’t want to talk and will take active steps to avoid conversation.
I’m in the process of reading it and was stopped cold by something on page 54, a reference to a law student in the making.
This is a pretty big book, and in the first section (which includes page 54) she goes to lengths to lay out her basic premise about “the flight from conversation.” This flight affects every facet of life and goes down very deep in the psyche. The most worrisome suggestion is that an intense digital life (at the expense of a social life) doesn’t just make people inefficient or unempathetic at that moment, but it actually stunts emotional growth.Turkle describes the work of Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass showing that spending too much time with social media and its “thumbs-up” emotional culture deprives frequent users of the ability to process more complex negative emotions. These people then become even less able to respond appropriately and quickly in real-life situations involving negative emotions. This diminishing skill set creates a downward cycle driving people to avoid difficult face-to-face situations and to seek out comfortable digital forms of communications.
Page 54 is part of this background. It caught my eye because it featured an aspiring law student. Turkle frames this anecdote as “[t]he desire for the edited life”:
A college senior doesn’t go to his professors’ office hours. He will correspond with his teachers only through email. The student explains that if he sees his professors in person, he could get something “wrong.” Ever since ninth grade, when his preparations to go to an Ivy League college began in earnest, he and his parents have worked on his getting everything “right.” . . . Now he is three years through that Ivy education and hoping for law school. He is still trying to get things right. “When you talk in person,” he says, “you are likely to make a slip.”
He thinks his no-office-hours policy is a reasonable strategy. He tells me that our culture has “zero tolerance” for making mistakes. If politicians make “slips,” it haunts them throughout their careers. And usually they make these mistakes while they are talking. He says, “I feel as though everyone in my generation wants to write things out—I certainly do—because then I can check it over and make sure it is okay. I don’t want to say a wrong thing.”
I really wish I could reach out to this student. If he’s in law school now and if his first-year professors have used the Socratic method in any way, shape, or form, he has probably had a pretty rough transition. And whether he’s in law school or not, somehow he’s going to have to face a terrible realization: conflict and imperfection and mistakes and regret are
And whether he’s in law school or not, somehow and sometime he’s going to have to face a terrible realization: conflict and imperfection and mistakes and regret are all a reality, for all of us. You can run but you can’t hide. So he might as well build some strength now, ideally with a matching dose of empathy and humility, to deal with them as best he can.
I would also introduce him to the concept of a “growth mindset” as popularized by Carol Dweck of Stanford. A growth mindset is consistent with effort, mistakes, learning, and forward progress. What you are at the beginning of college/law school/a new job/anything is not your destiny.
The opposite is a fixed mindset, which is the concept your skills can be uncovered and revealed by testing but not truly built up or changed. The fixed mindset has a lot of disadvantages. One of them is a possible correlation with unethical conduct. A person’s desire to conceal a mistake might make that person dangerous. Being terrified about making a “slip” can lead to covering up mistakes, not seeking help, and in general turning potentially small problems into much worse.
This is just one reflection on the wealth of points in Turkle’s book. I’m still reading it! Throughout the summer I will be blogging about passages of interest, and perhaps even trying a Twitter chat at some point.
Read Jonathan Franzen’s New York Times review of Reclaiming Conversation here.