Females-In-Tech Spotlight: Sherry Turkle
Written by Julia Loten
If you’ve ever had serious concerns about the effect technology is having on us as a society, you’re not alone; Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, concerns herself with the impact of the digital age on human relationships for a living. In addition to academia, Turkle is the author of New York Times bestseller Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir, as well as several works on shifting relationships in our digital age and a book on the history of psychoanalysis. She also appears on news programs such as CBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, NPR, and CNN as an expert on the sociological aspects of human relationships with technology.
Turkle’s 2011 release of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is what gained her recognition, leading to her TED Talk in 2012 on the costs of relying too much on digital communication. The book covers robots and our potential problematic relationships with them, as we tend to empathize with robotic devices like animated baby dolls and Tamagotchis. She moves on to address the opposite; in the online world, people find it hard to empathize with other humans. Turkle attributes this behavior to our seeing robots as lacking human imperfections, which makes them “an easy substitute for the difficulty of dealing with others.”
Dr. Turkle clearly does a lot in the way of spreading her concern about digital interactions, but she still recognizes how useful technology is in the workplace and in social aspects. In an interview with The Guardian, Turkle states, “I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation.” She aims simply to teach people how to empathize in the workplace again, as that is often what lacks in digital conversations, in which people have the time to craft messages perfectly the first time. Turkle believes that stumbling over words and making mistakes is what makes face-to-face interactions so human, thus evoking empathy on either side. With these sorts of interactions on the decline due to advances and comfortability in technology, we empathize with each other less frequently and are thus forgetting how to do so at all.
As a panelist at the Humans First -- Technology Second talk at the 7th Peter Drucker Global Forum in 2015, Dr. Turkle mentions how her students followed this pattern as well. She explains that they exemplified a “transactional, not a relational, model” by preferring to write a “perfect” email and get a perfect response from her rather than going to see their professor in person. She asserts that “you need a conversation” in order to learn and share vulnerability.
In a study, she found that the lawyers who actually went out to meet with clients in person, rather than those who held all meetings via video call, were the ones who brought the most money into the firm.
According to Turkle, these examples illustrate the “empathy gap” which exists today as a result of our reliance on digital communication. She claims that in order to bridge this gap, we must work harder to have in-person conversations rather than digital ones in addition to demonstrating our participation and engagement when we speak to others.
In her most recent book, The Empathy Diaries, Turkle reconciles with how people might benefit from technology in their relationships without overusing it. As she asserts, “our devices offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy or the challenges of empathy,” concluding that a balance exists, we just have to work to reach it.
Since publishing Reclaiming Conversation in 2015, Turkle has transitioned from researching conversation to teaching it. In her workshops for organizations, schools, and community groups, she advises people on how to cultivate empathy through participation and engagement. She believes that in a divided country like our own, learning how to listen and engage with each other is more important than ever.