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Jemes Besse on new media, conversation and technological design.  

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 448 pp.

An influential and well-read scholar, Sherry Turkle is celebrated for perceptive studies of our intimate and sensory relationships with technology. Her seminal work Alone Together was, however, criticised for techno-scepticism, effectively proclaiming her one of social robotics’ first apostates. Turkle’s research into engineering alongside Cynthia Breazeal of MIT informed Alone Together, specifically the argument that social robotics is too often used as stand-ins for real human contact – an argument she remains most known for today. 

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Just like Alone Together, and building upon its ideation, Turkle’s new book is a curated collection of anecdotes that serves as a launching pad for cultural criticism and social analysis of technology. The success of Alone Together did not shield Turkle from criticism. While nuanced, it was perceived as too pessimistic. Its strict definition of authenticity seemed to veer too sharply towards luddite fear. In Reclaiming Conversation, readers are instead reminded of Turkle’s nuanced and forward-looking project. She understands that we cannot undo the technological changes brought on by the information revolution. A key concept in this new study is vulnerability. Turkle understands that we are vulnerable to the often-negative effects that new technologies have on us, but that we are not deprived of agency. Recognising this allows us to fight back and reclaim what we have been encouraged to give up. There are many uses of any given technologies, some of which can do us harm, others that can improve our lives in important ways, connecting us to our loved ones across countries and continents. Based on her reading of Henry David Thoreau, Turkle advances a view of conversation and its requirements of. To this end, the anecdotes of Reclaiming of Conversation are interspersed with Turkle’s interpretive (and often deeply self-reflective) voice. This composition works very well, making the book personal and relatable.

One anecdote that stands out is about daydreaming. Turkle writes that “We have convinced ourselves that surfing the web is the same as daydreaming. That it provides the same space for self-reflection. It doesn’t.” In response, she advocates that we create such a space ourselves. (Her debt to Thoreau is clear here.) In offices, she argues, we could create workspaces completely isolated from other colleagues, or have meetings without laptops and smartphones in the room. In universities, we could have lecture rooms with no wifi connection. Turtle argues forcefully for such spaces of solitude – she believes that they are key for the forming of a sense of self. Paradoxically, solitude allows for conversation: “It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. You don’t need them to be anything other than who they are. This means you can listen to them and hear what they have to say.” Daydreaming, rather than surfing the web, allows us to form our own thoughts and think creatively.

Unfortunately, Turkle too often gravitates towards critiquing the use (and not the design) of new technologies, advocating a sort of abstinence. This is not an adequate critique. It overlooks the extent to which technologies are designed in a certain way. Because the book’s audience is primarily written for the users of digital technologies, as opposed to the designers, this is understandable, but remains a major weakness, especially if Turkle wants to initiate social change. Perhaps her next book would be suited to include engineers, designers, academic and industry leaders in its intended audience. It should also include a more direct and extensive engagement with the issues of unethical design, for example the ways in which sonograms encourage a view of non-relational fetal personhood, as noted by Peter-Paul Verbeek, or the ways in which social networking services encourage a rational and game-like approach to sociality, as noted by Maria Bakardjieva. This is not to deny the agency of users, but to highlight that technologies work within social and economic contexts, and are built with specific purposes in mind by technologists who design and market products that encourage certain uses and restrict or inhibit others. For example, when Turkle writes about the risks of cell phones isolating a family, rather than merely advocating changes to cell phone use, she might have admonished designs that make it isolating, and push designers to create devices that won’t eat away at face-to-face family time. Turkle shows us the extent to which technologies are not neutral, but she does not show us the lack of neutrality in the contexts in which we use them.

James Besse is a researcher associated with the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His work focuses on the relationship between technology, emotional communication, and social change.

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