SUSIE JACKSON: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Susie Jackson. With me today is MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, author, most recently, of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Thanks so much for joining me, Sherry.
SHERRY TURKLE: It's my pleasure.
SUSIE JACKSON: In Alone Together, you call multitasking the alchemy of the 21st century. What do you mean by that? And what drove you to this thinking?
SHERRY TURKLE: Well, I think I mean by alchemy is that we had a fantasy, much as alchemy was a very elaborate fantasy, that we could use multitasking really to make time multiply. We could have more of it by multitasking. And it turned out that, like alchemy, things didn't really work out the way we had fantasized, and that every time we do a new task, add on a new task, our performance in every task degrades a little bit.
And that's what science has now shown us. And it's been a rough realization, because so many of us got used to the idea that we were making time and felt like masters of the universe as we were doing all of these things at once.
Another reason that multitasking felt like alchemy is that our brains rewarded us, our bodies rewarded us with a dopamine squirt, a shot of neurochemicals that made us feel great every time we added a new task. So we were rewarded for multitasking by feeling great, and it turned out that we were doing worse and worse at everything we did.
SUSIE JACKSON: So we're almost being set up to fail. Do you think that technology and constant connectivity have made us more productive?
SHERRY TURKLE: No. The research is starting to show that, in some ways, we're too busy communicating to think. We're too busy communicating to connect, paradoxically. And in many cases, we're too busy communicating to really create in the ways that matter.
So at the end of the day, I think we're going to have to step back and really reassess what the values in our personal and in our institutional and organizational lives are. But that doesn't mean that, in many, more local ways, we haven't been able to use connectivity in many positive ways.
So my categorical no needs to be tempered by, if you need to time shift, if you need to hold a meeting and bring people together, if you need to organize a meeting, if you need to be getting together with people from all over the world and getting things to happen, of course it's made us more productive in these very, in a sense, limited ways. But we can't look to connectivity for everything, and I think that's been the problem.
As people are getting 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 communications a day, as I've been interviewing people in business and consulting and architecture and law, I mean, those communications are starting to be up to 1,000 communications a day, their work is becoming communication. And there are just some things you can't get done when your job becomes communication.
SUSIE JACKSON: I know in the book you've given many examples of people talking about getting not just one communication from a person, but three or five in many different channels. Do you think that's contributing to this overwhelming feeling?
SHERRY TURKLE: Absolutely. It's not just the multiplicity of communications that people are feeling, that they need to both send a mail and a text and a call and follow up with an instant message. I mean, people are feeling completely overwhelmed. And then, of course, there's direct access to them, and a sense that you're always on, because if you don't answer your email right away you're somehow not being responsive.
I mean, I've found that if I don't answer an email in one or two hours, people will say to me, what, you're not doing your email? So the kind of ratcheting up of both the volume and the velocity is having some very negative effects on productivity, again.
And it's having a negative effect on something else as well, because as we demand instant responses from each other, as we, as I say, ramp up the volume and velocity, we begin to ask each other questions-- and this is a little subtle-- we begin to ask each other questions that we know we'll get an immediate response, and we begin to give responses that we can give immediately.
So we're kind of dumbing down both the questions we ask and the responses we give in order to gratify this need for volume and velocity. It's as though the pace becomes more important than the quality of the response. And we tell ourselves that the complexity of the world we live in and the problems we face are becoming ever more complex, and yet we've put ourselves in a communications culture that pressures us to dumb things down. It's like we've put ourselves all on cable news.
So I think this is something that we're really going to be facing in the short term, because I don't think this can go on.
SUSIE JACKSON: People often say that they don't have time for uninterrupted thought, but it's interesting that many of your subjects say that they prefer electronic communication, in part because it allows them to be more thoughtful or selective about their responses than they could be if they were face to face or in a phone conversation. What are your thoughts about that?
SHERRY TURKLE: Control over message and control over time is really what's standing behind the flight from the telephone. People say things like, you know, if I talk to somebody, that conversation could go anywhere. They might have a problem. They might be having something really that's bothering them, let's say either in their personal life or in business on their job.
And people don't want to hear it when they don't want to hear it, because they feel they don't have the time to hear it. And this leads into an issue that I think really is another kind of necessary conversation that we're not having in the business world, which has to do with conversations about mentorship, kinds of mentoring being closed down. Because we don't feel that we have time to hear the bad news, the difficult things that people would say in a phone conversation but wouldn't say in text, where they feel it will kind of live forever in text.
And by pushing people off the phone, by making them commit themselves to an email, we're not giving people the space to talk about problems. And therefore, we're having a harder time understanding where they're at, and it's making mentorship more difficult in organizations.
SUSIE JACKSON: And what approach do you think people should take to regain control?
SHERRY TURKLE: I think every technology demands that we actually confront our human values. And that's the great value of a technology, is that it forces that confrontation, which is good because it forces us to ask what they are. And the connectivity technologies that we confront now force us to ask what do we really want from each other? What kinds of communication are essential to us?
And I think that it forces us to define, I call them sacred spaces, both in our personal and in our business lives. The two realms are really quite parallel. So we're not going to get rid of these technologies. These are the technologies that are our life partners in the human adventure right now.
But it's more a question of saying, well, do we need to text at dinner? How about just being with the people we're having dinner with? Do we need to text during meetings? What about just being with the people we're having meetings with? I go to faculty meetings, everybody's doing their email. Parents in parks with their kids. They shouldn't be doing their email, they should be with their kids.
I think we've overstepped. Something's amiss. Texting at funerals. We've created a situation where we are so connected that we're forgetting that we need to be with each other. There's a wonderful thing in psychology that if you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely. And, in a way, we have we lost the capacity for solitude, the kind that refreshes and restores. And it's only in a kind of solitude that you can do a certain kind of work. And we're losing the capacity for collaboration if we're constantly communicating.
Constantly communicating is not the same as constructive collaboration. So I think just the way we had casual Fridays, I think we're going to have conversational Thursdays, and start to really redefine those sacred spaces where we need to reassert the importance of conversation, of the kind of mentoring that has to be done face to face, where people need to talk about their vulnerabilities, because they're not going to put that online, where people need to be one-on-one with their mentors and just talk.
And we need to be much more creative in getting back to those conversations.
SUSIE JACKSON: That's an interesting idea about conversational Thursdays.
SHERRY TURKLE: Absolutely.
SUSIE JACKSON: I find it interesting that, while your deep research and insight into people and technology lets you write with such authority, you also make somewhat vulnerable admissions, like that your daughter taught you how to text or use Skype.
SHERRY TURKLE: Throughout my career, when I've wanted to learn something I've turned to a 16-year-old. That is the secret of teaching at MIT.
SUSIE JACKSON: How do you see your own relationship to technology?
SHERRY TURKLE: I've tried to learn everything I could so I could understand the people I interviewed and the people who are trying to explain their relationships to me. For myself personally, I don't like being interrupted through my day. I've just found that temperamentally, I don't kind of like to carry my email in my ear.
So I find that I get a lot of email, so doing it in the morning and doing it at night and spending long, long hours, many hours, I can't say it's bliss, but I don't mind that. That's my way of communicating both with friends and professional colleagues. But I don't like being on it all day.
And then I dedicate my day to my work, my friendships, my students, my life. But I think that everybody needs to find a strategy for how to deal with it. My own strategy is that I don't like what I call the always-on/always-on-you culture. And I think that comes across in the book, because I've tried it, and I find that I can't work with constant interruption. I can't concentrate with constant interruption. I can't really get good writing done. I can't get good thinking done.
And so I need to segregate communication from other parts of my life. I can't get good shopping done with-- [LAUGHTER] So other than, obviously, very close friends, family, my daughter, obviously those who know my secret cell number, I mean, I do segregate out.
SUSIE JACKSON: It sounds like your personal approach is to make sure you're not always on. Are there other things you hope your book will inspire in terms of practical changes with our relationships with technology
SHERRY TURKLE: Absolutely. There are several, I call them necessary conversations. There is a necessary conversation about the role of robotics in daily life, and the role that we're going to give to robots in elder care and nanny care, in teaching. Are we going to let them take care of our elderly, as we are going to be pushed to do? Are we going to create robots that ask for love and say they'll love us and offer us solace?
And roboticists want us to do this, because they argue that there aren't enough people for this job. That conversation is going to very quickly need to be engaged, and I think we're unprepared for it. We think it's adorable. We think it's cute.
I want that conversation to start before those robots are being aggressively marketed. Already, you're starting to see that happen. And I hope my book makes some small beginning towards that conversation, beginning in earnest.
I want a conversation starting about the conversations we are not having about productivity in the workplace because of communication that is cutting off our ability to concentrate. We've let this creep up on us. We've said it's necessary. We've glamorized it. We've said we need to have it because it's kind of all or nothing. And I hope my book starts conversation about it's not all or nothing. You can control how much you have.
As soon as I start talking about this, people almost attack me and say, oh, but what about Egypt? Look at how Facebook helped in Egypt. And I say, just because Facebook is good for overthrowing dictators-- you know, thumbs up-- that doesn't mean that Facebook and social networking and constant communication in the workplace isn't really hurting your organization's ability to create, think, deliberate, and really connect about the things that matter.
Good for overcoming dictatorships, maybe bad for what's going on in your company. But there's a kind of blanket way in which we react to technology. I think that needs to be unpacked.
And the third and maybe the last is I want to get rid of this metaphor of addiction. Psychologists and then businesses have grabbed on to this idea about, oh, it's computer addiction. We have to cure ourselves of computer addiction. It's a terrible metaphor.
Because once you think that you might be addicted, there's only one thing you can do, which is get off the addicting substance. And once you're thinking like that, you feel hopeless. Because we're not going to get rid of our BlackBerrys and iPhones. These technologies are our life partners.
It's more like food. You're not going to get rid of good. You need to be on a healthy diet with food. So that's the goal, is being on a healthy diet with these technologies. And as long as we keep up this metaphor of addiction, we feel hopeless and impotent and being asked to do something where we know we're going to fail.
So I would say those are the three conversations that I wrote this book to be a part of.
SUSIE JACKSON: Sherry, thanks so much for having this conversation with us today.
SHERRY TURKLE: My pleasure.
SUSIE JACKSON: That was MIT's Sherry Turkle. For more, visit hbr.org.
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