Book Review: "Reclaiming Conversation: the power of talk in a digital age"

By Scott Hughes

Reclaiming Conversation

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in A Digital Age

by Sherry Turkle

Penguin Press, 2015, 448 pages

How often have you checked your phone while standing in line or sitting at a red light? In a moment of boredom at a gathering, do you glance to see if others are checking their phones before you reach for yours? Have you ever used your device to escape a difficult conversation?

Conversations are vital to who we are. We are shaped by the conversations we have with our parents, siblings, and friends when we are young. As we get older, conversations with our friends, spouse, and coworkers help us test our opinions and perspectives. Today, we increasingly have these conversations through online platforms and smart devices. Yet, as powerful shapers as conversations are, so are the conversations we don't have. That's precisely the problem Sherry Turkle is addressing in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

I confess I needed little convincing that we need to make more intentional time for face-to-face conversations. Turkle's earlier book, Alone Together (a good read in its own right), was preparation for, but not a necessary introduction to, her belief that we have failed to critically assess our relationship with technology. Being a researcher, Turkle is analytical in her approach, and she draws on many (perhaps too many) studies to emphasize her point.

Technology has an increasing pull on our attention to the point that we'd rather succumb to its siren call than engage in difficult conversations. Turkle's main conclusion is that our addiction to technology, specifically to handheld devices, has created an "assault on empathy." She writes, "When we invest in conversation, we get a payoff in self-knowledge, empathy, and the experience of community" (page 27).

Turkle gives examples of how the lure of technology and the lack of conversations affects our families, friends, coworkers, and communities. She chides parents for paying more attention to their devices than to their children, and warms families about preferring to communicate through online platforms (messaging services) and text messaging instead of face-to-face.

One of Turkle's observations is that technology seems to remove the awkwardness embedded in difficult conversations. But she notes that such moments of awkwardness invite self-reflection and are crucial to building intimacy, empathy, and connection. She also warns us about our over-engagement with social media: "Social media can also inhibit inner dialogue, shifting our focus from reflection to self-presentation" (page 81).

The church needs to heed Turkle's warnings. Instead of embracing solitude, people alleviate boredom (and solitude) through their portable devices. But solitude is not a problem to be shunned. Rather, Turkle points out that it is in solitude when we are the most creative: "I have said that if we don't teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely" (287). This is true for adults as well.

Although she identifies herself as Jewish, Turkle quotes Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, regarding empathy. Empathy is not about knowing how someone else feels, she says, but it "begins with the realization that you don't know how another feels" (172). Empathy is an offer of commitment and learning "patience and a new skill and habit of perspective" (172). Christian virtues of self-giving love toward our neighbors should characterize the way we converse and our commitment to it. Quoting essayist William Deresiewicz, Turkle observes that our experience of community has "moved 'from a relationship to a feeling.' We have moved from being in a community to having a sense of community" (173). Certainly, this is a distinction the church needs to notice.

For all her warnings, Turkle does believe there is a solution to reverse the loss of empathy; and that is the willingness to engage in face-to-face, difficult conversations! She writes, "The development of empathy needs face-to-face conversation. And it needs eye contact" (170).

Educators, those in family ministries, and marriage ministries would all benefit from Turkle's insights -- as would anyone who values a good old-fashioned, face-to-face, real-life conversation. For church leaders in general, Turkle's book reinforces the need churches have to critically assess their use of technology.

While I was already aware of my own predisposition toward giving too much attention to my phone and other handheld devices, Turkle made me even more aware of how serious the problem is. Her warnings reveal the opportunity the church has to be a place where people can engage in Courageous Conversations with those of different perspectives to learn and embody empathy. While we should not be under any delusions that conversations alone will persuade or bring unity, developing empathy toward those with whom we disagree and making a commitment to stay in relationship with one another are valiant steps in the right direction. It's time we reclaim Courageous Conversations.

Learn more about Courageous Conversations»