For each of the 12 days of Christmas, here’s something to beguile, distract – and leave you with questions to take into 2016
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. After all, how many times can you can swear off double chocolate cake or banish Cuba Libres from your life, only to collapse in a heap days later as the cruel winds of January tear through the flimsy coat of willpower?
Instead, I’m going in for a series of very modest experiments that just might make a difference to my life – and the lives of my friends and family.
I’m going to start with conversation. This has been on my mind for months, ever since I was caught reading and replying to texts on both my mobiles while supposedly talking to one of my best friends.
After 35 years of sharing all our secrets I was mortified to be called out on it. “Boring you, am I?” she said, with a slightly raised eyebrow.
No, she wasn’t. I had been coerced by the insistence of our shiny pocket pets, and by a bad case of e-FOMO: the 21st century version of that old-fashioned fear of missing out.
Sadly, this was not the first time, nor am I alone. If some pretty serious research is to be taken at face value, we may be losing the plot when it comes to really talking to each other. Back in October,by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had us admitting that we will often send a text to avoid an awkward or emotional face-to-face exchange – or an email to deal with a family dispute, let alone get distracted at the drop of an iPhone.
Is she right? Are we in danger of losing all the obvious human benefits of talking to each other? From the serendipity of exchanging ideas, the consolations of empathy, the civilising and democratising potential of chat? Or is something else going on?
After more than 30 years studying the psychology of how we relate to our technology, Turkle is on to something. She is a serious researcher, not given to the kind of moral panic of Oxford University neurologist Susan Greenfield, who angsts in public about the harmful effects of the internet and computer games on the brains of adolescents.
Last summer Greenfield was taken to task in an. Scientists at University College London and the University of Oxford wrote that “despite calls for her to publish these claims in the peer reviewed scientific literature, where clinical researchers can check how well they are supported by evidence, this has not happened, and the claims have largely been aired in the media”. In time, real experimental data or meta studies will certainly be published and such claims vindicated – or, perhaps more likely, dispelled.
More or less human
Turkle on the other hand, has already done her own research, on more than 300 teenagers and college students, which spanned more than 10 years. Among the many interesting findings, I especially like her ideas about the loss – and recovery – of sustained conversation and of a kind of intimacy it brings.
One 15-year-old told her: “When I’m at home, I don’t really get to sit down next to someone… and just talk with them. There are always other things going on, their phone is always out, they’re talking to other people.” For him, the fluidity of conversation on a three-day wilderness hike without phones was a revelation. “It was a stream, very ongoing. It wouldn’t break apart.”
But the trouble is that some of her rationale depends on the answers to a deep pile of puzzles that neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology and artificial intelligence researchers are still only nibbling away at.
Just what is the neurological nature of the self when it can play such extraordinary tricks on us as making us believe we are dead, or that loved ones are imposters? What’s going on that lets a white person become convinced a black hand is their own in one version of the so-called rubber-hand experiment? And does anyone know what plunging down the internet like demented white rabbits will do to us long term? Frankly, can we even be sure that our future is purely carbon?
This research is no longer esoteric: it’s at the heart of what the 21st century will be all about. Working at MIT, Turkle knows all this, of course. But despite – or perhaps because of – her research into technology and thethat become part of our extended selves, she is really making a passionate bid for us to remain human in the way we always have been.
In alerting us to the need to “acknowledge the unintended consequences of technologies to which we are vulnerable”, we have time, she says, to make the corrections and to “remember who we are – creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky and face-to-face”. Old school human, in other words.
My friend will be pleased. Inattentive or not, for now she prefers me that way.
Image credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis artist: Robert Indiana
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