I’m looking forward to reading into a new book by MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Ethan Gilsdorf, writing for the Boston Globe, gives us a preview:
The crisis of conversation is at the heart of Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” With it, she hopes to spark a discussion about what we lose when we settle for fleeting texts, sound bites, and status updates, instead of pursuing meaningful, nuanced human connection.
. . . A sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has studied the link between conversation and empathy, and how conversation supports self-reflection. In her new book, out Tuesday, she argues that our reliance on our devices endangers our ability to cultivate friendships, raise healthy kids, nurture intimate relationships, succeed on the job, and engage in civic discourse. “Fortunately, there was a flood of quantitative studies that supported what I was saying.”
Reviewing the book for the New York Times, writer Jonathan Franzen opines that it “makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.”
Creating communities for positive social change: Face-to-face helps, a lot
The themes raised by Turkle resonate with me very strongly, including their application to social change initiatives.
I recently hosted a small workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. Some 15 North American law professors, lawyers, and judges gathered for two days of close dialogue on how we can mainstream a legal framework that supports psychological health and well-being.
The event was successful both as an experience and as a seed planter. We enjoyed our discussions immensely, and people felt energized by the event. A good number came away with new ideas and leads for their work. Others are planning to host similar, small-scale events. The workshop also helped us to do some spadework that eventually will give the therapeutic jurisprudence movement a stronger sense of organization and public identity.
I must admit I was a dictator on one point: I put the event in a room that was not set up for PowerPoint. Instead, I wanted us to be looking at one another as we talked, rather than gazing at a screen. While this no doubt cramped the presentation styles of some of my dear colleagues who graciously adapted to my neo-Luddhite approach, I think the format achieved its purpose of enhancing the quality of our discussions.
Face-to-face interaction, a/k/a getting to know people in person, makes a difference. I have witnessed and benefited from this dynamic over and again at workshops, seminars, and conferences that enable people to have real conversations. And now these observations are buttressed by research cited by Turkle.
A hybrid approach for the 21st century
That said, in no way do I wish to dismiss the value of other communications options, including digital technology. Use of electronic media can enhance and strengthen connections made at conferences and programs. Conversations over the phone and via Skype/Facetime/video conferencing platforms can be enriching and interactive. E-mail, messaging, and social media sites offer great ways to stay in touch and to engage in dialogue and collaborative activities. And I’ve seen terrific, substantive, meaningful conversations and exchanges take place on Facebook.
In looking at this big picture, it boils down to embracing face-to-face dialogue as the gold standard, but understanding that other forms of communication are extremely valuable too. Such combinations can be especially useful when people are separated by distance, a common occurrence in the world of work today.
Related posts and sources
- The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society online newsletter reposted my article, “Conferences as Community Builders,” building off of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference in held earlier this year in Atlanta.
- Last year I wrote an essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online), an outgrowth of a 2014 therapeutic jurisprudence program in Boston, making a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace.
- Two years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why conferences?,” following the 2013 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Los Angeles.