Reducing our intake of Phatic

MIT Psychologist and longtime technology researcher Sherry Turkle published a thoughtful opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review this week.  In the piece (“The Flight From Conversation“), Turkle reflects on the ways in which mobile technologies are shifting the types of exchanges we have.  Tired of connecting, she wants to stand up for real, long-form conversation.

(As an aside, I have enjoyed Turkle’s work for going on two decades.  What I really appreciate is her balanced approach.  She is by no means a luddite, but nor is she a cheerleader.   She is committed to the idea that human beings and human identity are deeply conditioned by the material objects that we use.   At the same time, her research shows that all objects have both bad and good shaping powers.  I appreciate that she sees both sides.  Few who write on technology do, and it strengthens rather than weakens her arguments.)

Anyway, to her main point.  Turkle’s point is that these days, we spend a lot of time “alone together”.  We exchange words, but don’t really talk.  We are connected, but don’t really converse.  As a result, our lives are impoverished.  The practice of conversation teaches us both about others and ourselves, it bonds us to one another, and it teaches us important human qualities like patience.  Conversation puts us in touch with the most real parts of our lives, while communication can allow us to avoid it.  As she notes:

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

I appreciate Turkle’s contrast of the categories of “connection” and “conversation”.  So often, we make assumptions about the type of communication that is occurring when we connect. Yet, the category of connection—like “social” in social media—is almost entirely devoid of meaning.  It tells us nothing about the quality of the engagement or its impact on our lives.  A tweet and a confession are both connections, but are so different that using the same term for them seems ridiculous.

Linguists are helpful here. So much of what we do when connecting is phatic speech, to use the technical term.  Phatic speech—phrases like “how’s it going” and “let’s do lunch”—are the things we say in order to make sure that the lines of communication between people are still open. The content of the communication is essentially irrelevant.  What matters is the relational maneuver.

It seems to me that we have confused conversation with phatic speech.  Instead of talking about the weather, we update our status these days. But much of the time, status updates do nothing more than keep the lines of communication open. Nothing more. We often have an inflated sense of their importance, and sometimes they can be moments of real exchange.  But most of the time, they are just phatic speech masquerading as actual relating.  A dial tone and a call are not the same things.

The real question is why we feel the need to make sure the lines of communication are open?  And what happens if we never use them, what happens to us?

Just to do my job as a proper academic, I have to insert some footnotes.  Lest we think that Turkle is exaggerating, there is a lot to back up the view that short bursts of interaction are squeezing out longer technologically mediated conversations.  In their latest study on teens and phone use, the Pew Internet and American Life Project broke it down by texts sent, saying that “The volume of [texts sent] among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user.”  Reporting total texts rather than just texts sent, Neilson reported the number of texts per teen in Q3 of 2011 at an average of 3,417.  This increase in texting seems to be offsetting phone conversations.  According to J.D. Powers, wireless call length per month declined 77 minutes (from 527 minutes to 450) between August 2009 and 2011.  They found that those who swapped phone calls for texts did so because texts are easier and less involved than conversations.  I think we can all identify with that.

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