Summer 2010 | Online Exclusives

Digital Demands: The Challenges of Constant Connectivity

‘We’re becoming quite intolerant of letting each other think complicated things.’

Excerpts from Frontline’s “Digital Nation” interview with Sherry Turkle

MIT professor Sherry Turkle finds the prevalence of PowerPoint in grade school classrooms “distressing,” yet PowerPoint is ubiquitous. It has gained adherents in the federal Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who use it to brief military commanders. View larger image »


Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the
Sherry Turkle spoke on Frontline’s “Digital Nation” about how adolescents and adults interact with technology. Photo courtesy of Frontline.

founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Since 1995, Turkle has studied adolescents and adults in the culture of connectivity. In her forthcoming book, “Alone Together: Sociable Robots, Digitized Friends, and the Reinvention of Intimacy and Solitude,” to be published in January by Basic Books, she explores how humans have come to expect more in terms of relationships from machines and less from each other. Among her key questions are these: What are the limits of “relationship” with a machine? What is intimacy without privacy? What is democracy without privacy? How do the always-on/always-on-you demands of digital life interfere with people’s need for solitude, the kind that refreshes and restores?


In these edited excerpts from Turkle’s interview with Frontline’s TV/Web report “Digital Nation,” she speaks about young people’s relationships with digital technology and how this affects their lives and learning. Read the entire interview »

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“Generational Divide: Digital Technology’s Paradoxical Message”
-Sherry Tukle

Sherry Turkle: What I'm seeing is a generation that says consistently, “I would rather text than make a telephone call.” Why? It’s less risky. I can just get the information out there. I don’t have to get all involved; it’s more efficient. I would rather text than see somebody face to face.

There’s this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated. They’re hard. They involve a lot of negotiation. They’re all the things that are difficult about adolescence. And adolescence is the time when people are using technology to skip and to cut corners and to not have to do some of these very hard things. One of the things I’ve found with continual connectivity is there’s an anxiety of disconnection; that these teens have a kind of panic. They say things like, “I lost my iPhone; it felt like somebody died, as though I’d lost my mind.” The technology is already part of them.

And with the constant possibility of connectivity, one of the things that I see is a very subtle movement from “I have a feeling. I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling. I need to make a call”—in other words, people almost feeling as if they can’t feel their feeling unless they’re connected. I’m hearing this all over now so it stops being pathological if it becomes a generational style.

Frontline: Some would say most of the [university] lectures, most of the classes, most of the books are unnecessarily long and boring, and the stuff that’s great you could fit in a couple of hands, and that’s the stuff they should really commit to and memorize and study. The rest of it is better short and quick and to the point. Look at haiku. It’s much harder to do something quickly than it is to do something for hours. And who’s to say that it’s better to take your time and not be distracted?

Turkle: The ability to trace complicated themes through a literary work, through a poem, through a play—these pleasures will be lost to us because they become pleasures through acquired skills. You need to learn how to listen to a poem, read a [Fyodor] Dostoevsky novel, read a Jane Austen novel. These are pleasures of reading that demand attention to things that are long and woven and complicated. And this is something that human beings have cherished and that have brought tremendous riches. And to just say, “Well, we’re of a generation that now likes it short and sweet and haiku. Why? Just because the technology makes it easy for us to have things that are short and sweet and haiku.” In other words, it’s an argument about sensibility and aesthetics that’s driven by what technology wants.

I don’t really care what technology wants. It’s up to people to develop technologies, see what affordances the technology has. Very often these affordances tap into our vulnerabilities. I would feel bereft if, because technology wants us to read short, simple stories, we bequeath to our children a world of short, simple stories. What technology makes easy is not always what nurtures the human spirit.

I’ve been an MIT professor for 30 years; I’ve seen the losses. There’s no one who’s been teaching for 25 years and doesn’t think that our students aren’t different now than they were then. They need to be stimulated in ways that they didn’t need to be stimulated before. No, that’s not good. You want them to think about hard things. You want them to think about complicated things. When you have the ability to easily do showy, fabulous things, you want to believe they’re valuable because that would be great. I think that we always have to ask ourselves, when technology makes something easy, when its affordances allow us to do certain things, is this valuable? What are the human purposes being served? And in the classroom, what are the educational purposes being served?

One of the most distressing things to me in looking at K-12 is the use of PowerPoint in the schools. I believe that PowerPoint is one of the most frequently used pieces of software in classrooms. Students are taught how to make an argument—to make it in bullets, to add great photos, to draw from the popular culture, and show snippets of movies and snippets of things that [he or she] can grab from the Web, and funny cartoons and to kind of make a mélange, a pastiche of cropped cultural images and animations and to make a beautiful PowerPoint. And that’s their presentation.

PowerPoints are about simple, communicable ideas illustrated by powerful images, and there’s a place for that. But that isn’t the same as critical thinking. Great books are not fancied-up PowerPoint presentations. Great books take you through an argument, show how the argument is weak, meet objections, and show a different point of view. By the time you’re through with all that, you’re way beyond the simplicities of PowerPoint.

Computers are seductive; computers are appealing. There’s no harm in using the seductive and appealing to draw people in, to get them in their seats, and to begin a conversation. The question is, what happens after that?

Frontline: What about multitasking?

Turkle: Because technology makes it easy, we’ve all wanted to think it is good for us, a new kind of thinking, an expansion of our ability to reason and cycle through complicated things—do more and be more efficient. Unfortunately, the new research is coming in that says when you multitask, everything gets done a little worse; there’s a degradation of all functions. Did we need to really go through 10 years of drinking the Kool-Aid on the educational wonders of multitasking and forgetting about everything we knew about what it takes to really accomplish something hard?

At MIT, I teach the most brilliant students in the world. But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes because they need to be taught how to make a sustained, complicated argument on a hard, cultural, historical, psychological point. Many of them were trained that a good presentation is a PowerPoint presentation—you know, bam-bam-bam—it’s very hard for them to have a kind of quietness, a stillness in their thinking where one thing can actually lead to another and build and build and build and build. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things. And there are some kinds of arguments you cannot make unless you’re willing to take something from beginning to end.

We’re becoming quite intolerant of letting each other think complicated things. I don’t think this serves our human needs because the problems we’re facing are quite complicated. To hear someone else out, you need to be able to be still for a while and pay attention to something other than your immediate needs. So if we’re living in a moment when you can be in seven different places at once, and you can have seven different conversations at once on a back channel here, on a phone here, on a laptop, how do we save stillness? How threatened is it? How do we regain it?

Erik Erikson is a psychologist who wrote a great deal about adolescence and identity, and he talks about the need for stillness in order to fully develop and to discover your identity and become who you need to become and think what you need to think. And I think stillness is one of the great things in jeopardy.

[Henry David] Thoreau, in writing about Walden Pond, lists the three things that he feels the experience is teaching him to develop fully as the man he wants to become. He wants to live deliberately; he wants to live in his life; and he wants to live with no sense of resignation. But on all of those dimensions, I feel that we’re taking away from ourselves the things that Thoreau thought were so essential to discovering an identity.

We’re not deliberate; we’re bombarded. We have no stillness; we have resignation.

Kids say: “Well, it has to be this way; we have no other way to live. We’re not living fully in our lives. We’re living a little in our lives and a little bit in our Facebook lives.” You know, you put up a different life, you put up a different person. So it’s not to be romantic about Thoreau, but I think he did write, as Erikson wrote, about the need for stillness; to be deliberate; to live in your life and to never feel that you’re just resigned to how things need to be.

When we’re texting, on the phone, doing e-mail, getting information, the experience is of being filled up. That feels good. And we assume that it is nourishing in the sense of taking us to a place we want to go. And I think that we are going to start to learn that in our enthusiasms and in our fascinations, we can also be flattened and depleted by what perhaps was once nourishing us but which can’t be a steady diet. If all I do is my e-mail, my calendar, and my searches, I feel great; I feel like a master of the universe. And then it’s the end of the day, I’ve been busy all day, and I haven’t thought about anything hard, and I have been consumed by the technologies that were there and that had the power to nourish me.

The point is we’re really at the very beginning of learning how to use this technology in the ways that are the most nourishing and sustaining. We’re going to slowly find our balance, but I think it’s going to take time. So I think the first discipline is to think of us as being in the early days so that we’re not so quick to yes, no, on, off, good, good, and to just kind of take it slowly and not feel that we need to throw out the virtues of deliberateness, living in life, stillness, solitude.
For further resources on this topic, see "Media Habits" in our Digital Library »
There is a wonderful Freudian formulation, which is that loneliness is failed solitude. In many ways we are forgetting the intellectual and emotional value of solitude. You’re not lonely in solitude. You’re only lonely if you forget how to use solitude to replenish yourself and to learn. And you don’t want a generation that experiences solitude as loneliness. And that is something to be concerned about, because if kids feel that they need to be connected in order to be themselves, that’s quite unhealthy. They’ll always feel lonely, because the connections that they’re forming are not going to give them what they seek.

2 Comments on Digital Demands: The Challenges of Constant Connectivity
Martha Rast says:
October 26, 2012 at 5:53pm
Dear Dr. Turkle,



I am thrilled to read this interview as it pertains so poignantly to the main issues I'm struggling with in relation to raising my children in this Digital Age.



They attend a religious school that has decided to try and keep up with the Jonses of our time: A one-to-one laptop program was launched this year for use by the 5th through 8th grade students. Most everything I have to say about it , you have eloquently said. I'd like to add a few other thoughts to it:



How about the motor skill development of handwriting? Will a thumbprint really satisfy our soul? When I asked the headmaster about this topic, he said that Handwriting will be unnecessary, and by the way Spelling will be obsolete. I shouldn't worry.

I thought about the intensity of the power of that handwritten love note, passed secretly between sweaty palms in the hallway, or found slipped between the cracks of a locker door. Equally true the bully note.



What about the time to look back at our personal notes on a textbook page? I thought of my copy of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."



Thank you, thank you!!
Sui Fai John Mak says:
July 6, 2010 at 10:51am
Thanks for your deep insights. Sorry for the typo. I have corrected them as shown below.
I resonate with your views that we are forgetting the intellectual and emotional value of solitude. As Benjamin Franklin once said:"Joy is not in things; joy is in us" We will lose our balance and our perspective with too much connectivity, and might even become slave to technology, if we rely too much on its affordance. I also found it worthwhile to meditate and pray, as a
Catholic, in order to maintain my spiritual growth and faith. So, moments of solitude could help me to concentrate without too much distractions. I think our own inner dialogue is also an important key to success, when we could think critically and reflect thoroughly before we take any action or make any important decision.
John
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