July 22, 2024
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Sherry Turkle on Technology, Relationships, Empathic Conversation And the Jewish Self: We Need to Be Alone to Be Together

Sherry Turkle may be the Abby Mauze Rockefeller Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, a licensed clinical psychologist, and acclaimed author, but she is, first and foremost, a mensch. Perhaps it’s not her term of choice but mensch sticks. Our Zoom session precedes the March 1 paperback launch of The Empathy Diaries, which won a 2021 National Jewish Book Award.

I initially broad-brush the Orthodox communities’ diverse technological landscape. Then the Queens-born herald of tech suggests I read her Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. I joke that the next generation’s babies will emerge attached to iPhones; Professor Turkle counters the metaphor by identifying iPhone or tablet slots on today’s potty trainers and baby bouncers. As a psychologist, she is distressed that “children lose the capacity for solitude.”

 

The Value of Solitude
In Building Empathy

“The capacity for solitude is so precious because it is in the capacity for solitude that empathy is born…it comes from your capacity to know who you are…to have a sense of a kind of stable self.” It’s only when that happens that children can recognize those who are different from themselves and say, “Let’s be friends. Let me tell you about me and let me learn about you.”

Children who cannot be alone need constant incoming attention and look to other people to support their fragile sense of self. They are “needy in a profound way” because “they don’t know who they are.” This is more likely when parents “… don’t encourage their children to develop a stable sense of self,” and constantly supply their children with incoming stimulation: an I-pad or tablet on potty trainers and baby bouncers, “passing the phone to the back of the car,” giving them a screen or “allowing them to be in front of a screen from the earliest stages.” She quotes pediatrician Donald Winnicott: “If you don’t teach your children how to be alone, then they’ll only know how to be lonely.” It’s a cautionary mantra for parents who want their children to engage in relationships. Professor Turkle also links solitude to her spiritual practice as a Jew.

 

Relationship Building As an Empathic Jew

“I don’t come to a spiritual practice empty,” Professor Turkle emphasizes, but “with a lively internal life…conversation with my rabbi, my friends in the temple… my children…other people… Jews connect through conversation…you don’t just come into it looking for conversation because you can’t tolerate a moment alone.” Conversation “…implies a self that knows how to be in a relationship…and understands that solitude is different from loneliness…Solitude is being able to be in lively conversation with yourself, because you are filled, because you are a person.” This is the heart of the Jewish experience. She reflects on her family’s Jewish practice, “…so deep in their conversation, their personal conversation with God,” and views such conversation’s absence as one of the threats of going online and disappearing there. It’s a barrier to empathy.

Empathy, she says, is the discipline of putting yourself in someone’s place and saying, ‘What does the world look like from there?… Empathy is not saying, ‘I know how you feel.’ It’s saying I don’t know how you feel, but I’m listening…It’s an act of radical humility…The great rabbis don’t say ‘I know how you feel’ if you say you have problems with your family. They say, ‘Every family is different. Tell me about your family…I’m here to listen…I’m committed because I am in your community.’”

Aside from therapists, “some of us have had empathic parents, who taught us how to listen” or an empathic teacher or rabbi. “I was very lucky… I had an empathic rabbi who was very important to me, who listened.” Professor Turkle showed up at his door after JFK’s death; he just let her talk to him. “Some of us have people like that in our lives and some of us have to find people who can help us learn to…find that radical humility.” She is optimistic that empathy can be cultivated by “…learning to say, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to listen.’” Empathy is not a gift,” she maintains. “It’s a practice.” Multitasking reduces that practice.

 

Multitasking Reduces Effectiveness

Research results show that for every task one adds, the brain tricks you into thinking that you are performing better and better, but Professor Turkle says, “You are degrading your performance the more you multitask…It’s a particularly pernicious activity.” A study confirms that.” If one sits opposite another at a table, even with phone off and face down, “you will form a less empathic connection with the person…just by having the phone present at the table…The phone is reminding you of all those ‘elsewheres’ you can be …”

If she hadn’t experienced psychoanalysis or been exposed to cutting-edge technology, would her views and “self” be different, I ask? It was exposure to profound ideas that sustained her. Just prior to her mother’s passing, she read the work of her renowned professor—psychologist Erik Erikson. He posited that people transition through life cycle stages (e.g., mourning) repeatedly, but in different ways. These insights informed her psychological perspective on computers. Her humanistic values, moral perspective, and advanced psychological training contrasted with colleagues’ awe of robots and artificial intelligence. She said, “MIT needs me.” Remaining there was complex.

 

Gender and Career Advancement

Professor Turkle’s work was lauded before MIT’s decision to deny her tenure, which she believes resulted from her criticism of technology. She appealed it, citing an undisclosed rule implemented just before her review, and won tenure. Institutions that try to dismiss women do so in ways that are not on the merits, and women who confront institutions on issues other than gender are more likely to win, so that those institutions can avoid gender as the issue. She was able to confront gender issues over three subsequent decades. Also, institutions, and some women within them, favor the status quo. So where does empathy emerge?

 

Practicing Empathy in a Tech-Saturated World

I ask how this COVID-disrupted and technologically saturated world can provide latitude to practice empathy. “You don’t need latitude,” Professor Turkle says. “Empathy is practiced on the person next to you…” She describes her students’ difficulties in avoiding and dealing with COVID and their high stress levels. She encourages them to be empathic, pairs them to share life stories and listen to each other and gives them timely feedback.

How can our conversations build humanity, I ask, given an increasingly remote-based work/conference environment, where avatars can replace people? For Professor Turkle, it’s problematic. She blesses how technology facilitates encounters with those unlike us, with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily converse. Yet, she notes, if we are avatars in a business meeting, we lose our sense of our bodies together, our commitment, and our ability to read and interpret emotions and eye contact. I mention how virtual reality games deflect pain from burn patients and help autistic people socialize. “I am sure,” she responds, “…look, there are wonderful applications, but the idea that we should be channeling all of our energy into how we are going to live in the metaverse…no, no, no…”

 

Technologies, Disinformation, Democracy and Vulnerable Kids

I ask Professor Turkle what warnings she would put on technologies, like those on cigarettes. Initially, she had framed technology as a new arena for exploring identity. She did not “anticipate what Facebook would become…what they could do to keep you mesmerized and angry, and then keep you in a silo with people who were angry…,” resulting in political and tribal divisions. In the late 1990s, she recognized how Facebook’s algorithm accomplished this. She was “on it right away” and tackled privacy issues in her next two books. “People deflected the whole privacy issue,” she says, because they said advertising was no big deal. “That was the least of it.” Academics wrote about this, “but it is going on today, unabated…” People don’t want to know, I said. “People now know everything” was her rebuttal.

“…about the surveillance state…disinformation…it’s all out there…You could argue that Facebook still spreads disinformation about vaccines…[which was] not all that helpful… People are willing to accept disinformation along with information…The information society didn’t mean that the level of knowledge increased… the level of stuff increased.”

Congress’ questioning of Mark Zuckerberg, she says, demonstrates that their staff did not know what to ask Facebook and citizens did not pressure them. “If you met him at a dinner party,” I asked, “what would you say to him?” Professor Turkle responded, “Mark…you’re a danger to our democracy…as an information provider, you’re the most powerful person in the world…Do you want to cast your lot on the side of democracy or not?” For years, she recollects, schools taught how bad it was that companies supported the Nazis. “The disinformation on the Internet that is undermining democracy is not…something that should be coming out of an American company.”

When I mention Congressional testimony on TikTok’s impact on teenage self-image, Professor Turkle cites laws preventing NBC from running ads encouraging anorexia. Laws could also regulate the content of social media providers. Grassroots activists should push for this.

Today’s world, superficially interconnected, replete with communication technology, and tragically conflict ridden, can swing towards good or evil. Empathy tilts it towards the former. Thank you, Professor Turkle.


Rachel Kovacs is an Adjunct Associate Professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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