Monday, April 23, 2012

Forever Texting

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never texted.


Because it feels age inappropriate.

Even if I were an avid texter, my observations would still fall largely within the domain of the anecdotal.

Like you, I am not looking forward to my anecdotage. I am doing my best to keep it at a distance.

Better to allow our reflection to be guided by the superb intelligence of MIT professor Sherry Turkle.

Turkle has fully researched the field. Last year, she wrote a book about it, called Alone Together.

Part-sociologist and part-psychologist she is exceptionally qualified to make sense out of the texting craze.

Other authors have placed more emphasis on Facebook, but I agree with Turkle that the scene of a group of people, gathered together for a meeting, each individual texting on his or her own cellular device, is more telling.

When you are surrounded by living, breathing human beings and you choose to focus on a text message, something is wrong. With you, of course, but more importantly, with our culture.

Writing in The New York Times yesterday Turkle described a younger generation that is trying to overcome feelings of disconnection by obsessively trying to connect via text message. If texting never provides the feeling of real connection, it will always be unsatisfying and will easily become manic.

Paradoxically, efforts to connect via text are causing people to feel even more disconnected, even while they believe that they are, I would say, hyper-connected.

Turkle’s thinking makes effective use of paradox. Some readers have gotten confused about it, even going so far as to suggest that paradox is self-contradictory.

It is not.

Today in America the younger generation seems especially prone to what I have been calling anomie. Having been brought up in a culture where community ties have largely frayed and where more and more people are “bowling alone” they do not know where they belong and do not know how to function within a community or even a social group.

Apparently, they do not know really how to socialize and are trying to learn by texting. Unfortunately, their mania over texting is making it more and more difficult for them to form real social connections, even real relationships with other people. As Turkle says, they are losing their ability to converse.

Why are they doing it? In part, because every member of their peer group is. If they do not feel disconnected before they get absorbed in texting they will surely feel it afterwards. If they feel disconnected before it, they will develop a false sense of connection through their constant texts.

Many young people, Turkle says, are so terrified of being alone that they will accept any form of connection, however empty it may be.

What has been lost, she explains, is human conversation, the kind that takes place when two people sit down together, face-to-face, look each other in the eye, and exchange information and feelings.

Human conversation often takes place in ritualized conditions, like family dinners or meetings. It cannot take place when each person is hiding from everyone else by texting. 

It’s almost too obvious to say it, but when you are sitting at dinner with a friend and are absorbed in a texted conversation with someone else you are being rude and inconsiderate. Bad manners make for bad relationships.

Turkle describes the scene:

In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

She also quotes a 16-yer-old who says that one day he’d “like to learn how to have a conversation.”

If that does not scare you, nothing will.

Conversation is a skill. It needs to be learned, cultivated, and developed. People who do not know how to converse will not know how to conduct relationships, romantic or not. They will find it impossible to work together. They will never learn how to negotiate.

Hiding behind their screens, they may be surrounded by warm human bodies, but they are effectively alone. Turkle says that they are “alone together” and the paradox expresses the situation clearly.

When everyone gathered around the conference table is texting, the group does not coalesce.  No one will feel group solidarity or group loyalty.

People who speak primarily through text hide their faces. This means, Turkle suggests correctly, that technology allows them to mask their identities. In their texts they can pretend to be someone they are not.

If you have no face, as the Chinese would have it, you cannot commit and you cannot be trusted. 

Having no face means that you are detached, alone, isolated, and rejected. It may not feel that way, but that is the way it is.

The more people fall into the bad habit of communicating through text messages, the more they will lose the habit of conversing with others, reaching out to make a connection, identifying themselves as friends, not foes.

Turkle explains:

We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.

Admittedly, this is a paradox. Some people have already tripped over it, so, allow me to make clear what Turkle is telling us.

If a young person tries to overcome a feeling of disconnection by establishing a raft of false connections, he might convince himself that he is less alone, less detached, more part of the group.

And yet, his sense of connection will not be real. He may not know it but he has adopted a set of habits that befit an outcast, a pariah.
If his feeling of connection is hanging by the thread of an illusion, he definitely does not want to find out. The illusion of connection is better than complete disconnection.

Being alone in a room will not feel like a respite from a life full of human connections. It will open him up to the truth of his social oblivion. It will then threaten him with the unbearable anguish that attacks those who find themselves detached and disconnected from all social groups.


Jim said...

When I was growing up in the 60s I remember so many older people who remembered growing up without a telephone. They used to say, "People have lost the art of writing notes and letters, they just want to make a phone call".

Dennis said...

I think it leads to poor attention to detail that manifest itself in every aspect of their lives. It helps to make them subject to every bad idea that sounds good. They never ask the who, what, where, why and how of anything because that would require attention to details.
Sadly this is re-enforced by their experiences in their schooling at every level. When one lives by "bumper sticker" approaches to all problems one will die by them.