Fear of Screens
The Sender, 1982
Why would anyone want to believe that people who are communicating with phones have forgotten what friendship is?
THE sudden appearance of mobile and social digital technologies has brought new pleasures; we hail them as a new kind of magic that can make us both more and more than human. But the prominence of these technologies can also feel toxic, threatening, and inhuman, sparking fears about their effects on users who seem increasingly enticed by and dependent on their expediency. This has spawned a genre of concerned critique that has surfaced everywhere from weekend New York Times op-eds to such academic journals as Cyberpsychology. Rather than seek to describe specific changes or uneven distributions in how we relate and communicate, this genre instead takes a medicalized view of digital connectivity and seeks to diagnose the threats it poses to our very humanity. These critiques begin with a received definition of what makes us human — having “authentic” selves and “real” emotions, moral sensitivity and “deep” social connection. Our capacity to experience these real truths and depths of feeling is posited as inborn and inherently fragile; at any moment insidious technologies can disturb the delicate balance and strip us our humanity, throwing organic order into cyber chaos.Nathan Jurgenson is a sociologist and social media theorist. He is a contributing editor at The New Inquiry, co-founder and chair of Theorizing the Web, and researcher at Snapchat. @nathanjurgenson
Science and technology professor Sherry Turkle has emerged as the most high-profile voice among these disconnectionists. While her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, praised unironically as “self-help” by fellow disconnectionist Jonathan Franzen in a New York Times book review, makes some concessions to the pleasure and usefulness of using smartphones, it is also replete with rhetoric that understands screens as necessarily toxic and represents humans who use this technology as broken. She describes (mostly young) adults on their phones as impaired in nearly every facet of behavior that is thought to make a human a human. People using phones purportedly have a limited capacity for solitude, sadness, empathy, and deep relationships. Parents have it particularly rough: “We catch ourselves not looking into the eyes of our children or taking the time to talk with them just to have a few more hits of our email,” she writes. Parents who look at their phones too much create kids who are “awkward and withdrawn.” And children using phones, of course, are the most broken of all. According to Turkle, they can’t sustain attention or engage in “deep reading” of books; they can’t express themselves, find friends, or form attachments. They can’t exercise executive function, listen, make eye contact, or respond to body language, and they are generally uninterested in each other. They talk at each other in short bursts of minutia, they hurt each other and don’t know it, and they’ve moved from an emotional to an instrumental register.
Sometimes implicitly and sometimes overtly, this theme runs throughout the entirety of Reclaiming Conversation: Look at all these damaged subhumans that have fallen for technology’s addictive and noxious appeal! the book insists. Look at the victims of the digital toxin who need curing! Turkle asks imploringly, “Have we forgot what conversation is? What friendship is?” But the more important question posed by Reclaiming Conversation — more interesting than Turkle’s or any other disconnectionist’s answer to the apocalyptic questions they raise — are the conceptual leaps needed to ask them. How do you look at everyday people using digital devices to communicate with one another and suppose that they may not even know what conversation and friendship are?
Turkle’s questions are very different from asking, say, how digital connection has changed conversation or friendship, and which of those changes are better or worse for whom. Instead she raises the stakes of digital connection directly to the threatened end of your human spirit. Why this presumption of doom?
These questions, and the concern behind them, are prevalent because they seem to have an almost intuitive appeal. Who hasn’t wondered about their dependency on digital convenience, on the constant contact and unprecedented visibility on social media? But how intuitive, really, is her claim that we are all broken? That young people, especially, have been made digital subhumans?
Turkle’s claims may feel commonsensical in part because they are self-flattering: They let us suspect that we are the last humans standing in a world of dehumanized phone-toting drones. That everyone is becoming mindless robot assholes makes for a good, immediately accessible routine for a certain kind of bemused comedy: Throughout the book, Turkle cites such comedians as Louis CK, Stephen Colbert, Aziz Ansari, and Jerry Seinfeld. These routines are as comforting as they are funny, because they point toward a simple solution. Once we recast our insecurities as the phone’s fault, all we need to do to fix them is be more “mindful” of our digital intake, as Turkle and many others have recently begun to recommend.
To make its case, Reclaiming Conversation appeals to science and empirical observation, but the evidence it offers is convincing only to the extent that you share the presupposition that screens are inhuman and antisocial. Turkle cherry-picks from social science literature on social media and mobile devices, while suppressing the general thrust of that research: that the relationship between digital connection and sociality is multivalent and complicated. How could it not be? Sociologist Jenny Davis has already written about the methodological shortcomings of Reclaiming Conversation, arguing that the findings from a study on a tech disconnection camp that Turkle relies on throughout “show that screens themselves have no effect on empathy—exactly the opposite of what its authors (and Turkle) report. The camp study, relying on shoddy methods and inaccurate conclusions, exemplifies how cultural fears and emotional appeals can facilitate the spread of unsubstantiated claims, cloaked in science.”
This cycle of claim and counter claim is not new. For as long as there have been social media and mobile devices, there have also been articles or books aimed at lay audiences arguing that we’re trading real life for something digital. And then come the replies from researchers who have found that the relationship is much more complicated — that people who text more often also meet face to face more; that the contemporary technologies of social isolation were, and are, the television and the automobile, not smart phones; that there’s been a recent reversal of the long post–World War II trend toward social isolation.
To be sure, each of these findings comes with a long list of caveats, with the correlations holding true only under certain conditions and in certain cases. But regardless, Turkle’s case does not hinge on empirical proof of the damage suffered by us the dehumanized but on presuppositions that predetermine her conclusions. Turkle sees a world of connectivity as devoid of connection because she misunderstands digitality itself.
DIGITAL connection is deeply interwoven through social life; it is made of us and is thus as infinitely complex as we are. Anything social is inherently shaded with both good and bad. It may be good or bad for some and not others, at some times and not others, in some places and not others. Reclaiming Conversation, like too much other writing about new technologies, is invested in the false question of whether the Internet is centrally good or bad, as if technology were a separate thing that could be subtracted from social life rather than being part and parcel of it.
This oversimplification pre-empts her critique, so that she asks not what technology (including language itself) affords or discourages, and how and under what circumstances, but “what do we forget when we talk through machines?” This slanted question elides the issue of how communication is always mediated by power, space, bodies, language, architecture, and other factors as well as by the particular medium through which it occurs. To prescribe one form of media — to privilege speaking over writing over texting — would require deep description and analysis of the context: who is speaking, to what ends, and why. Turkle too often assumes screen-mediated communication comes in only one flavor, which cannot grasp the complexities of our always augmented sociality, to say nothing of how screens are differently used by those with different abilities.
Throughout Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle makes the unqualified and unsupported assumption that real conversation, connection, and personhood must happen without the screen. She refuses to understand digital connection as itself human and part of this world, seeing it instead as an appendage of the separate, virtual world of machines and robots. This frames digitality as inherently antihuman, pitting society and technology as opposites. Her digital dualism is plain when she describes how we have “used technology to create a second nature, an artificial nature,” or when she discusses a “world of screens,” or when she laments “the pull of the online world” away from the real world of humans. “We turn to our phones instead of each other,” she says, as though our phones do not contain each other. She worries that online, “we are tempted to present ourselves as we would like to be,” as if such virtuality and self-presentation hasn’t always been basic to the traditional “real” world of human bodies.
Digital dualism allows Turkle to write as though she is championing humanity, conversation, and empathy when ultimately she is merely privileging geography. Again, this can feel intuitive, because this fetishization of contiguity has a long tradition and is echoed in our everyday language: Each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air.
Of course, geographic proximity is important to whether we call something “close” or “in person” or “face to face.” At times it is perhaps the most important variable. But it certainly should not be the only one. To start from the prerequisite that co-presence is solely dependent on proximity in space devalues so many other moments where closeness occurs that happens to be mediated by a screen. Physicality can be digitally mediated: What happens through the screen happens through bodies and material infrastructures. The sext or the intimate video chat is physical — of and affecting bodies. Video chat brings faces to other faces. You are aware of, learning from, assessing, stimulated by, and speaking through bodies and the spaces around them, as details of those spaces filter in and are noticed or foregrounded. This screen-mediated communication is face-to-face, in person, physical, and close in so many important ways, and distant in only one.
Likewise, being geographically close does not necessarily assure the other qualities of proximity. You can be in the same room with someone, but that doesn’t mean you are actively caring for or about them: Maybe you are not listening; perhaps you are there out of obligation. You can be distant in all the ways you were close in the video conversation, not “in the same place” at all.
Turkle claims she is championing “real” human connection by downplaying the ways people are close at a distance and distant when close. What she is implicitly claiming is that geography is the only form of proximity that counts and finds support for the idea in its supposed profitability: “The more the business world appreciates the importance of composure, attention, and face-to-face communication to its own financial interests,” she writes, “the more distance it will take from technologies that disrupt them.” As she does in the book, Turkle is willing to endorse the scripted, commercially motivated “conversation” Starbucks urges employees to have with customers simply because they are occurring between people who are geographically close — not because they produce or are the product of empathy. It should seem altogether perverse that these hollow Starbucks interactions get called face-to-face, real, and in person, whereas the intimate video chat is called distant, virtual, and inhuman.
TOO much of Reclaiming Conversation’s argument about a generation broken by digitality rests on its presumption that geography is the only way humans can be close. Lurking behind this is Turkle’s effort to assert the moral supremacy of what she experienced as traditional (like printed books, which, when they were newly popular, were seen to be destabilizing in many of the same ways that digital technologies are today). This packages the status quo as a solution to those problems with digitality that we all recognize and occasionally experience. Some people really are annoying with their phones; sometimes smartphones really do feel compulsive.
To address these problems, Reclaiming Conversation doesn’t advocate fully getting rid of phones or social media. Though Turkle speaks highly of “digital detoxes,” she regards them as mere stopgap measures. What she proposes instead sounds more moderate: “It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention,” Turkle says. Throughout the book, she asks for this “intention,” that we be more “deliberate” and “mindful,” that we find “balance” and “moderation” in our digital connection so that we can newly enact “a more self-aware relationship with our devices.”
While this may seem like sensible middle ground, it is asking that we make our relationship to digital connection hyper-present in our lives — a constant preoccupation if not an obsession. It makes connection and disconnection a ritual practice to be tracked and confessed. The constant mindfulness and self-awareness she prescribes as the “healthy” or “normal” way to use your phone is also a form of internalized social control, leveraging the fiction of a stable “authentic” self to enforce boundaries around one’s behavior.
When Turkle says she is a “partisan for conversation,” she means the kind of talk that is presumed to help people “discover what they have hidden from themselves so they can find their inner compass.” She writes that “a virtuous circle links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection” and that “in solitude we learn to concentrate and imagine, to listen to ourselves.” She calls such self-consciousness a “path toward realism.”
The prescription of this type of self-awareness assumes that there is some stable internal entity that is who you “really” are; it frames self-discovery in terms of who you are not and what you won’t do. It regulates and prohibits behavior in the name of this “true self.” Turkle writes that we are “torn between our desire to express an authentic self and the pressure to show our best selves online.” “Instead of promoting the value of authenticity,” Turkle complains, social media “encourages performance,” which she construes as a form of lying:
In theory, you know the difference between your self and your Facebook self. But lines blur and it can be hard to keep them straight. It’s like telling very small lies over time. You forget the truth because it is so close to the lies.
But performing the self is not lies; it is the essence of the self, as the history of identity theory, from George Herbert Mead to Erving Goffman to Judith Butler, can attest. The idea that self-performance is somehow a new product of being online is as false as the idea that one can have any sort of self that is not in some way performed. Such a view undermines the pleasures and potentials of identity fluidity and performance and instead demands a more intense relationship to a static self that is “true” and “normal.”
There is another way we can handle our phones, one that doesn’t call for a misguided “mindfulness” that misperceives technology as inherently toxic: Don’t be rude to others, with or without your phone. Be mindful of people rather than screens. Focus less on your relationship to your device and more on your relationship to human beings. This includes not feeling entitled to someone’s attention just because they are geographically near, and it especially includes not putting forward your nonuse of a phone as proof of your superiority and others’ subhumanity. Reading Reclaiming Conversation, I often felt that if Turkle were more mindful of others, she wouldn’t be so quick to see them as broken.
Rather than constant self-regulation through “mindfulness” and “balance,” we might assess our relationship to digital connection in terms of our autonomy. Are we really “addicted” to phones, or do contemporary work demands make it impossible to disconnect? In what ways is our control over how connected we are a privilege, especially when considering those for whom digital connection is prohibitively expensive or who cannot procure reliable internet access?
From this point of view, both connection and disconnection can be appreciated for their own sakes. When connection is not treated as a controlled substance, it can transcend its relation to productivity. Time away need no longer be seen as a kind of necessary recharging, as if humans were batteries. Whether we are pleasurably zoned out in front of a screen or a campfire, we might “waste” time for wastefulness’ sake, to burn it, to put it to no future productive use.
The false sense that your health and humanity are at stake in when and how you look at your screen suggests that we are already too “mindful” about how we are connected. We have too many self-conscious rituals of disconnection. If being mindful means being preoccupied with a phony sense of balance and moderation, anchoring oneself to a fictitious “real” identity, and judging constantly who is normal and who is broken, then we may need something more mindless.