Over the weekend, in a New York Times essay adapted from her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote that our attention is increasingly divided, and described how cellphones and tablets are affecting the quality of human interactions. One college student she interviewed explained the “rule of three.” In groups of six or seven students it’s polite to make sure at least “three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone.”
So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.
Young people spoke to me enthusiastically about the good things that flow from a life lived by the rule of three, which you can follow not only during meals but all the time. First of all, there is the magic of the always available elsewhere. You can put your attention wherever you want it to be. You can always be heard. You never have to be bored. When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone. But the students also described a sense of loss.
One 15-year-old I interviewed at a summer camp talked about her reaction when she went out to dinner with her father and he took out his phone to add “facts” to their conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.” Read more »
In a Times review of Reclaiming Conversation, Jonathan Franzen writes that Turkle is a “kind of conscience for the tech world” and that her new book is “straightforwardly a call to arms. Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”
In 2013, Turkle talked with Bill Moyers about the downside of coexisting in two worlds — the one we’re walking in and the one in our phones. Watch the video and then talk to somebody about it.