When the star British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Hamlet on a London stage, recently broke out of character to turn to the audience and plead with them to stop videotaping him with the smartphones so many carry, a critical moment had been reached. The steadily increasing incursion of digital devices into our personal, public, and professional lives has been accelerating, and it is hard both to ignore this incursion and predict where it is going. Cumberbatch’s recognition of this boundary feels like an important wake up call.
Sociologist and Psychologist Sherry Turkle, a deep thinker on how technology impacts our lives, cited this incident in a talk she recently gave at a business conference I attended. She used this incident to launch a discussion on the impact of digital technologies on our culture and conversation, a topic she explores in depth in her upcoming book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, October 2015). In this talk to a group of thousands of association executives and staff—itself mediated by the projection of her image on a large screen floating above the stage—Turkle cited research on how just the mere presence of our devices impacts how we interact with each other. One study she described observed that the presence of a phone on a table, even if turned off, can cause people to talk less with each other – a powerful and disturbing impact. Her hope is that we work to reclaim the depth of our individual and social lives by being mindful of the impact devices have on our interactions, and in particular on our conversations.
I found her talk provocative, though I did not agree with all that she said. I do recognize the impact these devices have on our work, and worry about how dependent we have become on them. I know I feel this in my own work life too, as I am constantly pulled to check the steady feed of digital information – email, twitter, text messages. It has already changed how I work and may continue to do so. Turkle spoke of how Thoreau emphasized the importance of solitude AND conversation, and how digital devices can violate both of these domains. We struggle to sit quietly without the easy, omnipresent connection with media of all sorts. We have become intolerant with solitude, And I agree too that devices make it harder for us to be together – with strangers, co-workers, friends and family — and to pay genuine attention to each other, and this impacts the culture of the organizations in which we work. All this, Turkle says, weighs against all the power and positive impact technology brings us.
Where I may differ with Turkle is in the reasons she gives for our addiction to these devices. In her view, we love our digital lives because we have control over our digital stories, can edit ourselves in the digital realm, whereas in the world of face to face conversation we have less control. Life is messy and unpredictable. While I agree with this insight, I think it is only one of several reasons for our constant engagement with devices. Others include the way the world of work has bled into our leisure and family lives, and how devices are a powerful force in breaking these boundaries. The devices themselves also offer us relief from the sense of loneliness many of us feel in a more transient and alienated life, away from communities and family. In fact, there are probably other relevant explanations to add, and we are likely still too close to these digital dynamics to really have a clear view of them.
These small disagreements aside, I think Turkle makes a powerful argument for how digital devices impact our work lives, our connections with each other, and our identity more broadly. We at CFAR care a lot about these connections in our work lives, with our clients and with each other, and the way these connections create and sustain community and culture (see our recent book, The Moment You Cant Ignore, for more on this – www.unignorablemoment.com). Turkle makes some powerful arguments for what we can do to push back against these disruptive forces. For one, she states that we need to develop a more self-aware relationship with our devices, to exert control over them (or self control over ourselves). We can do this, in part, she says by creating sacred spaces where we don’t invite those devices in, both by cultivating our solitude and rediscovering how to be social without the intrusion of technology. In this way, we can remember how to have conversations with ourselves as well as with others — what Turkle referred to as the “talking cure.” At work, we can replace multi-tasking with “uni-tasking,” and reclaim the time to think rather than feel we have to always respond with speed rather than reflection. Of course these media can be a force for connecting across space and time, and real community can be furthered through careful use of our devices and multiple ways to communicate. If we do this thoughtfully, Turkle suggests, empathy will return and we will re-experience the depth and complexity of relationships that make for rich worlds of work and beyond.