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Talk, Don’t Text, MIT Professor Tells Cadets

FullTextImage/img/@altDr. Sherry Turkle holds a cell phone as she talks to VMI cadets about the influence of technology on society. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 12, 2012 – “I would rather text than talk.”

In 15 years of interviews about cell phone use, Dr. Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that to be the most commonly repeated phrase. Turkle was speaker at VMI’s academic convocation today in Cameron Hall.

Turkle told the cadets that the preference for electronic over face-to-face communication is dangerous to the formation and preservation of community. “Human relationships are rich, and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” said Turkle, and text-messaging and other forms of electronic communication offer an easy escape: sharing and sharing and sharing, but only in “sips” – the sacrifice of conversation for connection.

“Have I met a gadget I didn’t love? I don’t think so,” said Turkle, acknowledging the appeal of technology that offers everything faster and cheaper. Her talk focused on costs of technology that may be hard to see.

“We are vulnerable to what the robotic offers us, and we are not asking ourselves the hard questions about what the robotic might be taking away from us,” said Turkle.

Using Apple Siri – the iPhone’s intelligent personal assistant – as an example, she explained how people are being to “taught” to have conversations with a machine that cannot possibly understand the meaning of the conversation. “We’re allowing ourselves to get closer to machines, even when they don’t deserve it, and we’re distancing ourselves from each other.”

It’s time, she said, for conversations in which downtime – time for thought– moves the conversation forward, instead of offering a moment for a quick text. It’s time also for solitude, which allows people to know who they are. And it’s time to really listen to one another.

Turkle noted that this “necessary conversation” was important for the cadets’ generation, especially for those in the military who “face weapons of wars that are waged by robots.” The winner, she said, will not be the best community, but the side with the best hackers.

‘I’m not suggesting that we run away from our devices,” said Turkle, “just that we have a more self-aware relationship with them and with each other.”

–Sherri Tombarge