66 pages • 2 hours readSherry Turkle
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Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015) is a non-fiction work by Sherry Turkle. A clinical psychologist and professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, Turkle specializes in human-technology interaction and has decades of experience writing on technology’s problematic effects on human connection. In Reclaiming Conversation, the book’s premise is in the title: Turkle believes that technology has detrimentally taken over human conversation and that we ought to reclaim that conversation, partly through redeeming the lost art of face-to-face conversation. The work extends the arguments from her earlier book, Alone Together (2011), which sternly scrutinizes human relationships in the digital era.
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Like with Alone Together, Turkle crafts Reclaiming Conversation through interwoven empirical research and anecdotal reports from interviews. However, she also cites artists and poets, and she frames her arguments using Henry David Thoreau’s idea of “Three chairs.” In Walden, Thoreau said, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Before Turkle dives into Thoreau’s chair metaphor, however, she recounts a consultation she had with the staff of Holbrooke Middle School; teachers were concerned about the lack of empathy and imagination they increasingly observed in their students. Turkle surveys the situation and concludes that the students’ unrestrained use of digital technology—texting, social media, videogames—was a culprit. The author uses this anecdote to launch into topics of solitude and empathy cultivation.
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In her section on “One Chair,” Turkle focuses on the consequences that the Internet and social media have had on solitude and reflectiveness (one-chair conversations are conversations of solitude). Thoreau retired to Walden Pond in order to think, be alone, and avoid the clamor of life. Turkle distinguishes between solitude and isolation; solitude is not just to be alone but to be alone with oneself, to form a relationship with oneself that in turn fosters empathy for others. Now, because of modern technology, no one ever has to be alone with themselves, and we are losing our tolerance for solitude. By extension, we risk a diminished capacity for empathy—and for conversation and attention.
The section on the second chair focuses on the impact of family, friendships, and romantic relationships. Her most urgent focus, however, is the foundational importance of the parent-child relationship. She stresses the parental responsibility not only to teach our children good technology habits but to model that behavior as a parent. She shares several anecdotes illustrating both the benefits and dilemmas of digital communication within different relational contexts.
The section on the third chair tackles the world of work, education, politics, and even medicine. Through many interviews and anecdotes, the author shows how employees and students alike struggle with the detrimental impacts of digital technology. Younger hires are not accustomed to the solitude often required by their jobs, and they often have been conditioned only to work when given frequent and immediate affirmation (as they would receive on social media). Students likewise struggle with solitude, though differently. Modern classroom technologies—mostly involving remote learning and increased anonymity—dampen the learning process for students, many of whom already struggle with reduced attention spans caused by digital technology. In the section “The Path Forward,” Turkle prescribes some recommendations for readers interested in positive change.
The author then introduces the idea of a fourth chair. She says that a fourth chair, for Thoreau, might have been nature; when Thoreau wanted to have deeper conversations with his guests, he would often take them into nature. In the digital age, however, Turkle speculates that our equivalent to nature would be some kind of digital space, perhaps involving AI. She addresses some of the ambiguities surrounding the idea of robotic companionship, but she is skeptical that robots could ever truly offer empathy to humans.
Turkle published Reclaiming Conversation in 2015, but its message is more trenchant than ever. Too much interaction online—and too little face-to-face—has troubling implications for the future of empathy, relationships, work, and education.
By Sherry Turkle