Our Devices, Our Lives

business team with smartphones and tablet pcA few years ago, I heard Sherry Turkle on Fresh Air, in an interview with Terri Gross. For several weeks I talked about that interview with everyone I knew–hoping that they would listen. Turkle had just published Alone Together, an exploration of how technology was changing the way we communicate. Many of the areas she explored reappear and are expanded upon in her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, (which I just summarized for Actionable Books.) The ideas that she began to research and describe in her first book have only become more urgent. And, as I did then, I’m urging everyone I know to read her new book, or at least read about it.

While her book raises particularly strong alarm bells for those who are growing up knowing no other reality than living with their devices, it is also important for those of who did grow up with a different reality and sense just how much our devices are changing our lives. (And, if you are looking to understand millennials, this is a great book to read–with lots of insights into the kind of challenges that millennials bring to the workplace.)

Turkle’s claim, based on extensive qualitative research as well as numerous studies, is that our devices are robbing us of the capacity to have conversations. And, that it matters–a lot! She frames the book by invoking Henry David Thoreau’s three chairs: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

First, we are losing the capacity for solitude, the ability to be alone with ourselves and to be alone with others. We rarely allow ourselves to be bored–we immediately grab our phones. We don’t take the time we need to let our minds wander. Being alone, being bored, letting our minds wander are needed to develop our ideas, our creativity, our inner selves.

Then, by relying on our devices as the primary means of communicating with others, we lose the capacity for real conversation. Conversation–not texting–builds love, empathy, deep learning, productivity. Communicating through our devices robs us of the nuance of face-to-face communication, of eye contact, of emotional connection, of the opportunity to be vulnerable. So, the second chair, friendship and the third, society, require real conversation.

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who has been studying digital culture and understands the “affordances” (the upsides) of technology. She isn’t suggesting we run away from our devices. (In fact, after my summary of her book was published, we “talked” via twitter–proving that Turkle is not averse to using technology…and making me laugh!) She is asking that we reconsider how we engage with them. What choices do we make at dinner? at meetings? Do we allow ourselves real alone time–where our devices are absent? Are we, especially as parents and as bosses, modeling practices that we want our children and the people in our organizations to follow? Are we taking the phone into the bathroom when we bathe (or breastfeed) our babies–as she describes in her book–or creating a culture in our offices where it’s acceptable to be on your device when you’re in meetings?

There are lots of small and large actions we can take to reduce the grip of our devices. My phone is no longer in my bedroom at night and I have trained myself to spend the first 40 minutes of my day without it. NOT looking at my phone first is something I spent about three months learning to do. It was not easy, but I’m about 90% of the way there. Changing my morning routine was an important first step for me. And, in doing so, I learned to redefine and reconsider what is truly urgent.

As we enter 2016 and it’s time for New Year Resolutions, I’m thinking about my “digital resolutions.”

  • What will I do differently in 2016?
  • How can I create more space and less reliance on my devices?
  • What will I do differently in managing my e-mail so that it doesn’t manage me?
  • What conversations have I been missing? How do I reclaim them?

I’d urge you to do the same!

Happy New Year!!