Conversation, Smartphones, and the Amish

I admire the Amish. This might sound a bit odd coming from someone who works in technology for a living, but I’ve always had a healthy suspicion of technology. I have no desire whatsover to be Amish, but I do admire the fact that they are a group that evaluates the adoption of technology through the rubric of “how will this affect the life of our community?”

So, when I read Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times, I briefly toyed with the idea of throwing my iPhone into the garbage disposal.

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

Conversations are key to cultivating empathy:

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

That last point about conversation also being key to identity is later expanded on:

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.

A virtuous circle links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection. When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say. At the same time, conversation with other people, both in intimate settings and in larger social groups, leads us to become better at inner dialogue.

But we have put this virtuous circle in peril. We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor‘s notion of the dialogical self; where we only know who we are insofar as we see ourselves reflected back in conversation with others. This is why solitary coninement is the most cruel thing you can do to somebody without killing them.

The article made me instantly desire to carve out some disconnected time in my life.

We can choose not to carry our phones all the time. We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people. We can carve out spaces at home or work that are device-free, sacred spaces for the paired virtues of conversation and solitude. Families can find these spaces in the day to day — no devices at dinner, in the kitchen and in the car. Introduce this idea to children when they are young so it doesn’t spring up as punitive but as a baseline of family culture.

When I think about the future with my nine month old son, I can only find myself nodding vigorously to phone free dinners and the like. But why would I wait for then? Why would I force a rule on him that I’m not willing to abide by today?

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