Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age 
by sherry turkle
penguin, 448 pages, $27.95

On the surface, this is another book about how smartphones disrupt conversation. It draws from social science studies and a raft of interviews to confirm what we already knew through experience. But the book is important because it captures the other 90 percent of the iceberg: how smartphones preempt solitude and the essential connection between solitude and conversation.

Turkle organizes the book by an epigraph from Thoreau’s Walden: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Her argument: good conversation springs from solitude while solitude is, in turn, enriched by conversation. And technology disrupts both. Unless we choose to be its master.

Smartphones promise that we will never be alone and never be bored. We reach for them to fill the unscheduled spaces in our lives. But it is when we are unoccupied and alone that our minds play. We ponder who we are and negotiate terms with the griefs and joys in our lives. According to research (a phrase used many times in this book) our minds are most creative when we are alone. In solitude we understand who we are to the people in our lives and, indeed, to ourselves. Thus solitude is the foundation of conversation.

But technology disrupts more than solitude. “Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, on topics of little controversy or consequence.” And, when we converse through our devices, they shield us from unscripted moments, from coping, in real time, with the twists, turns, and dangers of a fully present conversation. They shield us from the raw joy, perplexity, or hurt we’ve caused. This brings safety—and poverty—to our conversations.

In the public square, Turkle argues that conversations have become over-personalized and no longer our own. Algorithms, owned by corporations and potentially accessed by the government, model our consumption patterns. Then they use this information to show us not what we need to see but what they think we want to see. They construct a virtual world that is no longer an “other” but a mirror of ourselves. Meanwhile, the frank, private journal has been shifted to public postings and the ever-present need to charm your followers.

To this list of present concerns, Turkle adds a future concern: robots that serve as caretakers and companions. “One day I saw an older woman who had lost a child talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal.” But, “when this woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned this woman.”

Reclaiming Conversation provides a compelling, articulate, and wise argument for how we must protect the conversations that make us most human. Turkle diagnoses a problem and proposes cures: technology-free zones and a renewed commitment to unmediated, human care for our friends, our children, and our elders. Her book provides a solid foundation for conversation about the role of technology in our lives.

Yet Turkle could have offered a fuller understanding of smartphones if she presented them for what they are: the latest in a series of technologies that were supposed to stop three successive generations from being present with the people in their lives: telephone, television, and video games. People interviewed in the book betray their nostalgia for a time when people retained a capacity for empathy and solitude. They offer the impression that, with the penetration of mobile technologies, a healthy pattern was damaged. But new technology has not created a new problem. It has created an added challenge to something that was always difficult—for one human to converse deeply with another. What Ms. Turkle observes is a complication to the preexisting human condition of living alone together. 

Micah Harris is a consultant for the Department of Defense. 

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