MIT’s Sherry Turkle says there’s a time to unplug

February 4, 2011

OK, the first thing: If you think your kid has fallen into some black hole of always-on mobile Internet access and you haven’t heard from her in a week or two, don’t text her to tell her to shape up.

Go talk to her. Face to face.

You might think I’m joking. Sherry Turkle wouldn’t. She’s been studying how people relate to technology for decades. Lately she’s been making the rounds with a new book. Part of it talks about how omnipresent mobile devices are affecting our relationships with loved ones. And guess what? It’s not in a good way.

Photo by Peter Urban for Basic Books

“Sometimes we’re too busy communicating to listen to each other, ” says Turkle, a professor in MIT’s science, technology and society program. “We’ve lost our way. We’re forgetting our human purposes.”

It seems we are so busy virtually friending people that we’ve never met, and never will, that we’re neglecting to pay attention to the real people right in front of us, including our spouses, kids and co-workers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I scored a seemingly harmless iPod touch for Christmas. It allows me to carry Facebook and e-mail and the Web around in my pocket — and to the dinner table, and breakfast table and to the couch, where my wife and I watch TV. Yes, it is a distraction. No, I can’t multitask — not to the extent that I can update my status and actually pay attention to what my daughters learned in school that day.

And so, I’ve tried to step away from the machine at those times when the people I love are right there, face to face, in front of me.

I can do better. I’m guessing we can all do better — and basically that’s all Turkle is suggesting.

“I’m not saying unplug, ” she says by phone while at a stop in San Francisco on her book tour for “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” “Too many headlines are saying, ‘MIT Professor says Unplug.’ I’m not the grinch. I love my gadgets.'”

What she is saying is something that we all used to know, but somehow have forgotten amid the fabulous glare of new and better gadgets: There’s a time and a place.

Sure, Turkle might be focusing on the extremes, but she’s conducted hundreds of interviews over the years and boy does she have some stories. Extreme or not, listen to them and tell me if they don’t sound plausible or even familiar.

“There is this incredible story of the boy who tries to negotiate with his mother to make fewer gourmet meals, because if you shorten the courses, the dad might not text as much at dinner, ” she says, retelling a passage from the book. “Family after family, the kids are complaining that the parents are texting. Parents actually reading Harry Potter with the left hand and texting with the right.”

Turkle has stories of people texting at funerals, parents texting while driving (and speeding) with their kids in the back seat, a close sibling learning of his sister’s engagement through a mass e-mail from her, vacationers heading out to remote cabins to get away from it all only to find themselves desperately scurrying around to find a Wi-Fi connection.

“We’ve taken this magnificent technology and we’ve taken it a step too far, ” she says.

Turkle’s book spends some time looking at adolescents and how they use technology. Teens are digital natives who’ve never known a world without online communities and connections. Creating a persona and a life online has become so consuming for them, Turkle argues, that they risk missing out on developing some key skills, like the ability to be alone.

“The need to be constantly connected means you’re not autonomous, ” she says. “Creativity requires a certain ability to just sit by yourself and think by yourself.”

Turkle’s tales of how kids’ lives are being changed by technological saturation are at the same time heartbreaking and hopeful. Hopeful because, she says, we are not powerless in the face of our teenagers’ digital submersion, though sometimes it feels like it.

Basically, Turkle is saying, if you’re wondering why your kid won’t look up from that iPhone for even a second, try putting down your iPhone for a second and having a conversation.

“Parents are modeling the behavior that they then complain about in their kids, ” Turkle says. “I really think we need to reclaim something about giving full attention to our children as a first step.”

And in fact Turkle is convinced parents and other adults are ready to take that first step. She says those she has talked to have a sense that their digital lives have gone haywire; that it’s time for recalibration.

“I’m optimistic because I feel that the people I studied are not content, ” she says.

And it’s that digital discontent that is likely to lead us back to talking and listening, really listening, to our kids and each other.

I think Turkle is right about the pendulum swinging back. I know she’s right that we’ve got to try what we can to encourage the change.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.

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