On Conversation and Machines
Our connection to one another still depends on face to face conversation.
Posted May 22, 2018
I couldn’t text you back because I couldn’t find the right GIF.
- Anna Kendrick (via Twitter)
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, the MIT psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle writes that conversation “is the most human—or humanizing—thing that we do.” Our conversations, beginning with the mother-infant dyad, shape both our subjective sense of who we are as well as the neurobiological architecture of the developing brain. Whatever else we might say about differences between humans and other mammals, our well being depends on an integration of our relational history with the developing brain and mind. Ideally, we learn to mentalize: making sense of each other and ourselves, both implicitly and explicitly. The contours and subtleties of conversation stem from this ability to think about our own thoughts. When our early family relationships are characterized by warmth, attentiveness, and security, we are better equipped to mentalize—to reflect on our own thinking. The to and fro of conversation between parent and child catalyze our abilities for reflection and self-regulation. What could be more human?
All of this makes us wonder about what it means to grow up in a world that places a premium on digital, not just face to face, conversation. What is the cost to our developing reflective and self-regulating capacities when so much conversation happens over text? Lost in the more publicized worries about digital media and children (e.g., ubiquity of porn, disruptions to sleep, cyberbullying—all important, to be sure) are the less obvious side effects to social and emotional development. The so-called iGen age group—those born between 1995 and 2012—have grown up in a world steeped in digital conversation. More media fluent than previous generations, they are also more likely to apologize over text or break up with a significant other over text. It is easy to engage in handwringing (“Kids these days!”) and, to be sure, there is much to be admired about young people today. Still, we know that even a silent cell phone makes us feel disconnected from one another. Children who hear parents talk less (due to their own new media habits) will also talk less. There must be consequences to our intermingling of technology and relationships, indeed, our “flight from conversation,” as Turkle puts it. We may feel like we have become unwitting subjects in a large social experiment.
The idea that technology works against our most humanizing instincts for conversation is a theme of a novella written by E.M. Forster over 100 years ago. Published in 1909, The Machine Stops is Forster’s only work of science fiction. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans live underground, the story describes how an elaborate, omnipotent “Machine” takes care of everyone’s basic human needs and curtails the need for face-to-face, real-time contact between individuals. Humans live in isolated, honeycomb-like cells and share ideas with one another through instant messaging/video conferencing. It is a world of superficial, safe convenience. Travel to the surface of the Earth is discouraged, though not altogether forbidden. In the story, a woman named Vashti lives on the opposite side of the world from her son, Kuno. He wants to experience life above the surface and also seems to yearn for deeper contact with his mother. At one point in the story, she claims that they are able to see one another through the technology of the Machine (surprisingly like Skype). Kuno voices his dissatisfaction: “I see something like you in this place, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come.” Kuno further complains to his mother, “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” Desperate for face-to-face contact, he later accuses his mother of worshipping the Machine.
Forster’s tale depicts a world that depends on machinery for connection and cocoons people in a safe, if soul-depleting existence. The Machine does everything for everyone, with the simple push of a button (anticipating our era of smart homes with Alexa or Siri in charge). There is simply no need for human interaction. At one point, Kuno says, “We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it.” The Machine is both an object and fulfillment of desire, and its allusion to maternal love (safety and protection, deep within the womb of the earth) provides a tragic contrast to the relationship between Kuno and his mother.
Stories like The Machine Stops call attention to our misgivings about progress and our doubts about technology. Turkle suggests that the flight from conversation is a flight from empathy. Digital communication may be a way of managing—or keeping at distance—our reservations about closeness, keeping a lid on desire. Our devices and new media relieve us—not just of boredom—but a sense of being alone. We can manage interpersonal distance in quantifiable and predictable ways.
Yet the experience of being alone, having unpredictable moments of silence in our relationships, or simply pauses in conversation define what it means to be human. These silences echo formative experiences of loss and separation. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described the developmental achievement when a child allows the mother to be out of sight because she has become “an inner certainty.” Winnicott characterized the capacity to be alone as a paradox: it is being able to be alone, while in the presence of others. This might be the difference between solitude (the pleasures of being alone) and loneliness (the pain of being alone). There is a moment in Forster’s story when the Machine begins to stop and Vashti must confront the terror of her loneliness. “...for with the cessation of activity came an unexpected terror - silence. She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her.”
We can be pro-conversation without being anti-technology, a position advocated by Turkle. Our modern project is to look at what our technology obscures, alleviates, and exacerbates in our relationships. In a relational world often mediated by machines, our human connection to one another still depends on face to face conversation.
© 2018 Bruce C. Poulsen
Forster, E.M. (2001). The Machine Stops. In Selected Stories (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics). New York: Penguin Press.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital World. New York: Penguin Press.