The funny thing is that this new TED talk tells me that actually going out for beers and talking face to face with people is exactly what I should have done (not that this excuses anything, of course). Sherry Turkle, who gave the talk, is a professor at MIT and studies the effects of technology on the relationships we have with one another. She has been publishing books on the subject since 1984 which makes her as much expert as I’m likely to come across. The biggest trend she’s noticed is that the use of technology to communicate has made the relationships themselves more shallow and at the same time, we have become more and more dependent on the shallow relationships.
Turnabout is fair play. In my last blog entry, I wrote about a TED talk that rubbed me the wrong way when it came to motivation. In that piece I said that stating something in public makes me want to get that task done even more. The very next day, I watched another TED talk which was awesome. It was so incredible that I posted it to my Facebook wall and had a decent exchange with a good group of people who usually comment on my writing. I fully intended to blog about it the next day and said as much. Then I texted with a couple friends and went out for beers that night rather than staying at home blogging. This act of hanging out with friends instead of doing what I said flies right in my face. I meant to blog. I said I was going to blog and that felt good. Then I went out for a couple beers and blew it. Apologies. I am busted.
The relationships are becoming more shallow because they take the form of texts in non-words, 140 character tweets, or snippets on Facebook. Even work emails tend to be more brief. I work out of my house most of the time and I find myself multitasking and trying to glean snippets out of calls at times rather than focusing on the whole conversation – just as Mrs. Turkle notes in her talk. The temptation to answer an IM while on mute or switch from the IM to a text on my phone is constant and there are definitely times when I know the person I’m having a half conversation with is doing the same thing with someone else. It’s also true outside of work where we type a couple sentences or blurbs at each other and that can take the place of discussion. Stephen Colbert asked her in an interview if all these sips of conversation equated to a gulp. Her answer was no and I agree. It doesn’t mean that the sips are meaningless, but it’s just not the same as a chug of water when you’re thirsty.
Sherry Turkle notes that these sometimes sips lack authenticity or depth because we can plan them out and delete them if needed. That’s unlike a face-to-face meeting where a real foot can go in a real mouth. I’d temper that though, because I think we’ve all seen the email that shouldn’t have been sent or read about the tweet that blew up. The filters still exist to a certain extent and even a quick digital exchange isn’t the same thing as live banter.
The other key point I took was the dependency on the shallower exchanges. The explosion of mobile devices means that most of us are never far from connection. It’s very easy to crave it. You know that odd moment when there’s a group of people sitting around a table staring at their phones. That’s where the title of Mrs. Turkle’s TED talk came from: Connected but Alone. The digital world is always out there and tempting us away from the physical one. When I see a person walking around a public area wearing a Bluetooth earpiece I think that guy’s just waiting for a call which will be more important than whatever is right in front of him. This need to always be online not only takes away from our focus on the real world but also, apparently, keeps us from tuning out the noise and being introspective. The time we spend plugged into the outside world detracts from our ability to be introspective and understand who we are as people. As a result, we can’t enter into more meaningful relationships.
I see some truth in this but also believe that we can make more of our sips of conversation and use the digital world to explore ourselves. When I started watching the TED talk, I wondered if I were doing this blog right. I identified with so much of what she said. I also read an article she wrote in Wired. That article, titled Who Am We?, opens with “There are many Sherry Turkles” then discusses some of these online personas. This was eerily similar to my blog entry titled Why there are two R’s in the blog title – Facets to your Personality. Where I was talking about different facets of my personality, she delved even deeper into phases of her life and completely fictitious digital avatars for exploring the Web. The article was from 1996 and she is now suggesting we balance ourselves in a better way.
After reading more and rewatching the video a couple more times, I think I’m doing this for the right reasons but still need to do a better job focusing my life and letting the digital devices get more than three feet from me. This attempt at blogging is definitely an attempt to be more introverted and introspective. I’m enjoying the conversations I’m having on the blog and Facebook and in person when I meet up with my friends. With today’s more dispersed world, the need for additional communication is still there and should be leveraged. Moderation is important in all things and we should strive to make the most of it by going further than sips.
So that’s what I did one night this week instead of blogging. I went out to have a beer with some friends and talked.