July 20th, 2012
This postcard was meant to be sent last week from Boston, where I was attending the annual Summer Institute for grad deans sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools. I just couldn’t get to the screen long enough to finish it and so consider this a delayed mailing.
The meetings were held in a grand hotel in Copley Square, site of the beautiful old South Church above, one of the oldest congregations in America. If the immediate surrounds were vivid reminders of American history, the discussions inside the hotel were definitely focused on the future. So much is changing in higher education, and our institutions are compelled to keep pace or die. As always at these well-planned CGS meetings, we heard from a variety of first-class plenary speakers, largely tapped from Harvard and M.I.T. next door in Cambridge. Talk about the benefits of location. The plenaries were all memorable, sure, but more buzz attended to the talk delivered by M.I.T. social studies scholar and psychologist Sherry Turkle than to the others.
If you recognize her name it is because Turkle has written a lot about communication and new technologies, and she has done so with a lot of cross-over appeal, extending her ideas well beyond the walls of the ivy league and into popular-audience hands. In particular, she has offered us ways of thinking about the effects of technology on our lives: eg. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995). The Inner History of Devices (2008). These two works have been quoted a lot by scholars and pundits, experts and laypeople. Most recently she has written Alone Together, the essence of which she presented in Boston.
As the title suggests, Turkle is now critical of the effect of so much texting and connecting, in effect turning her earlier enthusiasm for computer technologies inside out. Then she believed in the utopian power of these new devices. Now, some ten years later, she is sceptical and worried. She was, of course, facing an audience of about 300 deans, almost all of whom were cradling their Blackberries or Apple phones in their laps, putting out fires at their respective home offices with merely a few keystrokes. She knew this, and made a big deal of showing humorous slides of People Just Like Us—congregating together at a large meeting but communicating separately, not with each other but with our hand-held devices: alone together. Right, we got it.
Turkle has a lot to say and a lot of it is compelling, but it is her deep fear of the future that made me uneasy. Perhaps it is because she has a teenage daughter who spends most of her time connecting and not conversing that gives her pause about the health of society, but I was feeling cranky about her generalizations. Turkle offers many fine examples of how texting is creating an entirely new way of being social – of distancing people from their own voices and bodies, of discouraging young people from feeling confident about real, physical in-person contact. But if everything she said about how paralyzed younger people were of intimacy were true, the population of the world would likely cease to grow altogether. She also has hilarious evidence of how far good spelling has fallen. Yes, blame it on those damn phones.
But you have to have a lot of chutzpah, or a loss of faith in your own children, to predict the world is going to hell because everyone is LOL too much. I appreciate much of what Turkle has to say and I find her ideas provocative and even at times appealing. But I can’t really buy into the causal nexus she draws between communication technologies and the end of civilization as we know it. One can argue, and many do, quite the opposite. Besides, there is no evidence that the world was in any better shape or that conversation was any richer long before we had iPhones.
If you read any of my tweets from the meetings (#cgsboston) you would know that only four of us –FOUR—were doing so. There was Guru Turkle, lamenting the garden path down which social media was leading us all, and yet of 300 or so deans in Copley Square only a small teeny handful of us were doing what she was talking –or complaining—about. I know I was being irreverent and misbehaving, but my excuse was irrefutable. Turkle herself had offered it for much of the evil effects she was discussing. Technology compelled me. I could no more stop tweeting than I could agree with her sad lament for our future.