Imagine a world where you are so afraid of solitude and boredom that you would rather administer electro-shocks to yourself, than to sit quietly without a phone or book for 15 minutes. Electro-shocks being preferable than just 15 minutes to sitting alone with your thoughts. Seems crazy, right? But that is exactly what happened in one study cited in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.
Sherry argues that this age of digital devices is actually changing us as people, preventing children from developing empathy and skills we need to navigate the world of employment and relationships. In her work, she has found that people prefer texting over speaking in person, for fear of the lulls, open-endedness and perceived work of conversation. Texting gives us the ability to craft our responses, editing them, and presenting a performance of ourselves, all the while avoiding observing the non-verbal cues that people give off while communicating.
In avoiding the open-endedness of conversation, we also avoid creativity, innovation, and the unfolding of the mysterious.
In my opinion, this would mean missing some of the best moments of my life. Real life and conversation may be messy and inefficient, but it’s also where I personally learn the most.
The root of the word communication is communion – to draw another into union with yourself. But these days we are doing the more of the converse – solely passing on information.
I’ve only read a fraction of this book and alarm bells are going off in my head. As someone who craves authentic connection and communication with both myself and others, this is a frightening narrative that Sherry describes. While this seems a grim picture, Sherry believes we are resilient and that real “conversation cures” and equips us with the tools we need. She is not arguing to turn completely away from digital devices, but to analyze our relationships to them and analyze our human values.
Part of this real conversation is learning the capacity for solitude by being alone with someone. Alone together – free of devices and the constant connection of being online. Solitude helps develop the sense of self and lessens the dependency on others, the dependency on always reaching outwards to define yourself. It is in this capacity for solitude that we learn how not to be lonely.
Also, when we depend on others for our sense of self, we can’t fully experience others as they really are.
We only see them in the context of ourselves and this sets us up for failure in those relationships when at the core of connection, we all just want to be seen.
I once took a Vipassana meditation workshop where we observed noble silence for 10 days. No talking, no phones, no tv, no books, no journals. 10 days with nothing to do but sit quietly with my thoughts. 10 days in the void. These 10 days were one of the most challenging for me in many ways, but I revelled in the opportunity for so much self-reflection.
I came away from that experience energized, focused, and brimming with ideas about anything and everything. 15 minutes is a far cry from 10 days, perhaps, but what would happen if we gave ourselves 15 minutes each day to really be alone with ourselves? Or 15 minutes of uninterrupted conversation with a loved one?
(Beach House’s song Elegy to the Void randomly came on my ipod shortly after discovering Sherry Turkle on The Good Life Project Podcast, so it seemed particularly fitting to pay reverence to the void this week.)