We live on our phones — 3 hours a day, by one estimate.
The scholar best equipped to answer that question of what the hell is all of this phone time doing to us? is probably MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together” and the new “Reclaiming Conversation.”
In an interview with Tech Insider, Turkle detailed the two main casualties of our device-centric lifestyles: solitude and empathy.
“It’s not some silly causal effect, that if you text you have less empathy,” she explained. “It’s that you’re not getting practice in the stuff that gives you empathy.”
For example: apologies.
“A face-to-face apology is such a classic place where we learn empathy,” she says. “If you’re apologizing to me, I soften because I get to see that you’re genuinely upset — you get to see that I have compassion for you. But if you type ‘I’m sorry’ and hit send, nothing happens.”
It’s not that texting someone an apology is a “toxic gesture,” Turkle says (though it does remind one of the Kanye line Text message break ups / the casualty of tour.) Rather, you’re just limiting your own ability to train your empathy muscles, which you’re going to need if you want to have lasting, robust relationships with people.
While it’s not exactly fun to apologise to someone face to face — in the same way that it’s pretty horrifying to tell someone that you have feelings for them face to face — it will, over time, bear relationship fruits.
Same thing with solitude, Turkle says. It doesn’t always immediately feel good to be by one’s lonesome, but it’s constructive over time.
“We literally turn being alone into a problem that we want technology to solve,” she says.”We use technology to solve it by giving us something on a screen to take our attention off ourselves.”
In “Reclaiming Conversation,” she quotes the comedian Louis CK, who says that 100% of drivers are texting because they don’t want to feel alone for a second. They don’t, to use Turkle’s phrase, want to go through the “panic of loneliness.”
This is tragic, she says, because solitude is basically the only place where we can establish a sense of self and create the kind of intrapersonal comfort that allows us to show up in relationships.
“Solitude is the capacity to be alone with yourself, to gather yourself and have a sense of ‘Here I am, I’m OK,'” she says, noting that it’s not a state of exhilaration.
It’s more grounded, and it’s the frame mind where your brain’s default mode network, closely associated with the building of the personal autobiography, becomes active.
Solitude is “where the knitting together of our stable autobiographical past happens,” Turkle says. “Those moments of solitude and boredom are where you have an opportunity to knit together who you are, what your history has been.”
You need to do that sort of homework in order to be a pleasant human in real life. To Turkle, solitude allows you to gain the personal resources needed to converse with someone and hear who they are rather than trying to turn them into who you want them to be.
“You need to be able to sit with your own thoughts and not pull out your phone in order to become the kind of person who can be comfortable and good with people,” she says.
Yet one question remains.
Does aeroplane mode count?
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