Book Review: Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle (photo by Peter Urban)

There is a wealth of information and speculation on how technology affects us. Books like The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains have crystallized concerns (which have been extensively debated) that technological advances can have a significant downside for the development of individuals and societies. Clinical psychologist and author Sherry Turkle has serious chops when it comes to understanding the effect of digital technology on human relationships. She has investigated and written about these issues for over 30 years, publishing several books, including Alone Together, which explore the difference between virtual connectedness and human connectedness.

Her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, focuses on the state of face-to-face conversation in a digital age. Her contention is that talk builds many of the most essential qualities and skills that make us human – empathy, self-reflection, strong relationships, creativity, productivity. She examines conversation, both traditional and digital, in many different contexts – with ourselves, with family and friends, with colleagues and clients, and within civic culture. The book mixes personal interviews, research studies, and Turkle’s own ideas and prescriptions into a comprehensive account of how our immersion in digital worlds affects our ability to communicate in person.

Although Turkle has serious concerns – backed up by serious research – about the effect of technology on our capacity for empathy and self-reflection, she is not anti-technology. Rather, she is hopeful about how we can accommodate technology while continuing to take advantage of the opportunity personal connection and conversation affords us to grow as individuals and a community. The book functions as a kind of sophisticated self-help manual – giving extensive background information to back up Turkle’s practical suggestions that we intentionally build face-to-face conversation into our daily lives and relationships.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring these issues and learning how to apply the ideas to their own lives (she has a great TED talk as well). You might also check out The World Beyond Your Head for an interesting take from a slightly different perspective.

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