Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor, with expertise in culture and therapy, mobile technology, social networking and sociable robotics. Her books include the NYT bestseller Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Her TED Talk “Connected but Alone”, exploring the paradoxes of our tethered existence, has been viewed over five million times.
What kind of devices do you use, and how do you use them?
I have a MacBook Air laptop – a constant companion. I’m writing a new book. I use it for my notes, my drafts, my research, and it is where I do my email. I write in many locations, rarely at a desk. My laptop is my intellectual home. I have an iPhone. I use it for email on the go, texting, and the world of travel apps, newspaper reading and Twitter. My iPad is my orphan. I carry my phone and small laptop. Traveling with three devices is, well, too much. At home, I’ll use it for a movie.
Effectiveness requires focus. How vulnerable are you to the distraction industry?
I am very vulnerable and equally self-aware. I think that is the best one can do. These devices and the world of apps are designed to keep us at them but now we know all about the politics of their seduction. When I am at my laptop, I am focused on my writing. I have a deadline and I have a passion. My enemy is less the distraction industry (I am forewarned, emotionally forearmed), more my email. The temptation is to turn to email when a paragraph is hard to master, when a chapter is not working. Doing difficult work requires that you stare at a problem that seems insoluble and keep staring at it. It is good to take breaks to listen to music or take a walk or stare at the water (I am lucky to do much of my writing by the sea). An hour of email is a different kind of break. It disrupts my train of thought. So, my discipline is to take “days off” for email or designate special hours for email. It is important to designate large amounts of time because so much of my work life happens on email. If I don’t set aside enough time, my mind is not freed up to do my creative work. But the trick is to segregate the email time from the creative time.
Prominent figures in Silicon Valley are known to strongly limit their children’s contact with tech. Madonna has recently said that she believes she made a mistake in giving her older children phones when they were 13.
The differences between people who grew up before smartphones and those who didn’t?
Smartphone use can rob us of two important things. The capacity for boredom and the capacity for solitude. When we feel bored our brains are doing important work, laying down important neural pathways. The capacity for solitude is at the heart of our capacity for intimacy. To paraphrase the great psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott: “If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.” Individuals needs to feel content in their own selves in order to achieve true mutuality with others. If children – even infants and toddlers – are continually offered screens and distraction, developing the capacity for boredom and solitude becomes difficult. So, it is wise to give children a head start – time to develop without constant distraction. It will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
But of course, every child needs to live with the tools of their time and it is the responsibility of parents to introduce digital devices of all sorts – as well as the world of social media, games, and apps – to children so that parents can teach the emotional literacy that these devices require.