Sorry, too busy to have a conversation

This is the 40th anniversary of the cell phone (“On April 3, 1973, a Motorola inventor named Martin Cooper made the first-ever call on a handheld cellular phone.” )

In a 2011 TED talk, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, reflecting on how our society uses cell phone technology, observed that “reclaiming conversation, that’s the next frontier.” By that she meant old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, without the sometimes never-ending distractions and interruptions of handhelds. In this TED talk,, and in her book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” Turkle explores how profoundly handheld technology has changed our culture, and she argues that we need to make better choices about how we use this technology. We can turn off our cell phones, we can tweet less often, we can visit Facebook once a week instead of once an hour. And instead, we can have real conversations with family, friends and colleagues.

I turn off technology, and I am encouraged that Sherry Turkle, and perhaps others who have heard her and read her books, are doing that too. I take technology-free vacations in Maine, and in the Caribbean, where I camp in a tent and remove digital technology from my life. I don’t talk on any phone unless there is an emergency, I don’t bring a computer or even an e-reader. I take books.  My wife and I hike, and climb, kayak, swim, build campfires at night, look at the stars, and endlessly talk. I try to do these “retreats” at least two times a year, for at least eight days each time. I almost always manage at least once a year. I come back feeling refreshed, with new insights and ideas.

I have a friend who takes technology-free vacations in the city. She turns off everything:  land line, cell phone, television, and radio. She walks or takes public transportation.  That’s harder than what I do, and I am not sure I could manage it, but she, too, feels cleansed, reinvigorated, and more aware of herself, her friends and family, of being alive.

Our interrupted and distracted culture, accelerated by mobile technology, is not a hopeless addiction, Turkle argues. We can easily do something about it. We can tame technology, turn it off. We can be fully present when our family, friends and colleagues are talking, not be “online.”

The high-volume of  interrupting phone calls, tweets, and emails, and our frequently-Facebook-checking culture, Turkle argues, is a substitute for authentic interaction.

Here’s an example. I subscribe to several  Communities of Practice (CoPs). These are online professional discussion groups where practitioners, researchers and others are supposed to engage in dialogue, learn from each other, add to our professional wisdom, explore new ideas, think together critically, provide a sounding board, offer insights, and perhaps at times inspire each other.  However, that doesn’t often happen. Mostly, these are announcement lists of other activities, resources, and events. Each of these online professional communities has hundreds of subscribers, so the critical mass needed for good discussion is not the problem. Most have subject matter experts, although they may lack discussion leaders, who often can be helpful in seeding and nurturing discussion.

When confronted with the lack of real discussion, and even shop talk, some CoP members reply in defense that they are just too busy. For a long time I thought this meant too busy working; people in the adult basic skills (literacy, basic education, secondary education, English language teaching) field, where most teachers have two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and where funding has been cut and those left employed have to do the work of those laid off, are busy.  But there’s something else going on, I think. The people in CoPs are not too busy to subscribe and to skim the posts, or at least the subject headers and digests of posts. They are just too busy to engage. Of course some people would (rightly) argue that there is benefit from getting information from CoPs, that some people may participate in some of the webinars, conferences, and online courses they learn about from these discussions. Still, CoPs themselves, are intended as a community, an opportunity for sharing professional wisdom, for discussion, a place to share ideas and have them critiqued. Those who “subscribe” but are not truly members of these communities, miss an opportunity for important and genuine conversation, for reflection and professional improvement.  Are they really too busy to engage in a conversation? Perhaps its because their lives are filled with what Turkle describes as the “illusion of connectedness.”

Is your own life filled with tweets, email, and short phone calls? Can you remember the last time when you had a “a good conversation”? Are your conversations distracted or interrupted by technology?  If so, try to take control:

• Turn off your cell phone during certain hours of the day.  Carry two cellphones, one that is always on, but only to be used for emergencies. Turn the other one off and only check it at the beginning and end of the day.

• If you subscribe to several professional development CoPs, cut down the number (perhaps to only one) but then actually engage with that one.

• Unsubscribe from all commercial email advertising – use the time you might spend looking at ads in real-time (face-to-face or online) talking with family, friends or colleagues. You’ll miss a bargain or two but gain something more valuable.

• Take technology-free vacations, perhaps short ones as well as longer ones. Use the time to become more aware of yourself, your family, your friends, your community, your environment, and  the world in which you live.

• Establish new ground rules such as no cell phones used

• During meals

• While walking  (There are other important reasons for this rule: hearing safety, in some environments, physical safety)

• During meetings, and

• When you are having a conversation

I would be interested in hearing other ways to tame our technology-domineering culture. Hope you will comment below.

One Response to “Sorry, too busy to have a conversation”

  1. lillie Says:

    I really enjoyed the post by Tuttle on leaving technology behind. There was the reference to electronic community of practice, people not taking time to respond or dialogue with others and I thought to myself, this is just another source of technology and perhaps, the reference is misplaced in this article.

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