Professor Shelly Turkle has been studying digital culture for over 30 years. After publishing many books including a trilogy on digital technology and human relationships, she advocates that technology doesn’t just catalyse changes in what we do - it affects how we think.
Online habits and behaviour that were once thought of as odd have become normalised. Nowadays, it's acceptable for us to split our attention as and when, and where, we want.
Scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed while at a group lunch is second nature. And no one bats an eyelid when you check your email in a board meeting. This behaviour has become familiar, expected even.
I’ll admit I just checked my Facebook while writing this.*
You see distractive online habits are easy to form but hard to break. Our brains are wired that way. It is addictive. We all look for instant gratification. It’s easy, and in our busy and stressful lives - easy is simple.
So, are setting ourselves up for a life of loneliness?
As we replace conversation for instant connection, "we short change ourselves" asserts Prof. Turkle. Avoiding conversation can mean we compromise our capacity for self reflection. As soon as you see someone sitting alone, within 30 seconds they’ve pulled out their mobile in order to distract themselves.
Connection here is not a cure; it is a symptom of the underlying problem.
The problem being: I share therefore I am.
It used to be a genuine feeling that provoked our desire to share - the joy or happiness of a moment - that is what compelled us to call our mum and tell her that story. But now, it’s because we want to feel something that we pull out our phones and send a text.
“We are using others as spare parts to support our own fragile sense of self” explains Prof. Turkle.
Being connected makes us feel less lonely, but it’s artificial. The opposite is true. Just think of those times when you’re with your friends - suddenly you look up and realise that everyone is entranced by their mobiles. You are physically together but you would all rather prove to others that your life is interesting, instead of truly enjoying each other’s company and being present.
So, what’s the cure? How can we reclaim our humanity while participating in this modern world?
Cultivate a capacity for solitude.
Self reflection is the bedrock of development.
When you are alone, that is when you find yourself. The state of being alone without being lonely can lead to self-awareness. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself.
Prof. Turkle points out that we should not turn away from technology, instead develop an awareness. See solitude as a good thing, reclaim spaces in the home for conversation, and demonstrate these values to your children.
We have the greatest chance of success if we recognise our vulnerability.
Prof. Turkle has been studying digital culture for over thirty years. She is a professor, author, consultant, researcher, and licensed clinical psychologist. Her many books include a trilogy on digital technology and human relationships: "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet," and most recently, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other."
*After I became aware of my distraction. I put my headphones on, played ambient music on Noisli and finished writing this. Awareness is the first step.