The Practice of Being Alone Together

Most of my family lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and when Christmas comes around we almost always travel home. During this particular holiday, my brother Keith was given tickets to the Fiesta Bowl, and I was privileged to attend with him. We happened to be in a suite with mainly Clemson Tiger fans who deeply enjoyed the contest (Clemson won 31-0). There happened to be a couple of Ohio State Buckeye supporters who remained relatively silent, for obvious reasons, through most of the evening.

One of those “Buckeyes” happened to be a young person who spent the entire evening on her phone. Since Keith and I were sitting in the back as neutral fans, it was easy to observe her interactions on her smartphone. For the most part, she took pictures of herself and posted them on a social media website in various poses or looks. I found that curious. Sitting in the midst of thousands of screaming, interested fans, she found herself in a world outside the stadium and absolutely “alone” in the midst of the Fiesta Bowl.

Following Christmas, Ruth and I traveled to Florida to attend the Council for Independent Colleges and Universities’ president meetings in Orlando. The event featured noted speakers from around the country who came and addressed presidents on the future of higher education or a topic related to the development of students. On Thursday morning, I was not sure what to expect when Sherry Turkle walked to the podium. Dr. Turkle, a noted professor at MIT, had come to share her research at the core of her new book, Alone Together.

She began her conversation with a comment: “I am not against technology, but you need to know that it is changing who we are as a people.” She added, “Are you aware that you can be sitting in a crowd, isolated but connected to thousands of other people?” I immediately thought, “Yes, I observed that in a crowded suite at the Fiesta Bowl.” The young Buckeye fan was not present in the moment but present in a different context to dozens of others in a social media world. I am not sure what I thought of this. Was it necessarily bad or wrong to be “lost” in a social world defined by technology?

Alone TogetherProfessor Turkle noted that her current study really began when she was doing interviews with students and one of them said, “I would rather text than talk.” The student further noted that it was easier to keep your social interactions “on screen – things feel simpler that way.” Face-to-face conversation is “risky.” Turkle discovered in her interviews that the current generation of students flees from certain kinds of conversation that she described as “open-ended talk.” Simply sitting down with another person or a small group for routine discussion has become less common. Conversation needs to be “edited” in order to be real.

Every time I listen to a conversation like this I immediately begin to think nostalgic thoughts about how my own generation lived differently. Unfortunately, Dr. Turkle suggested that technology had not just affected young people but had infiltrated our entire society in a manner that was altering our social interaction in negative ways. Her study looked not only at the behavior of millennials but also at older generations in the workforce and academia. Her study found common themes across generations: When technology is present, social interaction changes and empathy for others dramatically decreases. (In her studies and those of others, she noted a 40 percent decline in empathy for others’ opinions and perspectives since 1990). She noted as a faculty member that, in her meetings, everyone present came into the room and took out computers at the beginning and immediately went to work. They only paid attention to the agenda when it addressed an issue that a person or persons was concerned with. The meetings were characterized by limited dialogue, business efficiency and little genuine care for others in the room.

In contrast, her examination of meetings where technology was not present led to entirely different social interaction. People came into the room and often engaged in small, personal talk. They looked at each other during the meeting and paid greater attention to the entire dialogue. Perhaps most important, there was greater evidence of serious dialogue. By this time in her talk, I was really paying attention. Everything she had said was characteristic of the meetings I was a part of even at the executive level. We always had technology out and present. We justified the use of devices for efficiency reasons and because “there were important things to do” (as if, of course, the people in the room were not important). Thus, a conversation I thought was about “young people” quickly became one about me and my team. If we were honest with ourselves, I think we would admit that our meetings were missing something; we just had not been able to name what was missing.

Professor Turkle suggested that our technology promises two things that it is absolutely unable to deliver to us. First, our phones and devices promise us that we will never be alone. We will always be heard, and we can put our attention to whatever we want to. Second, we will never be bored. The world is at your fingertips. If you are dissatisfied with your current experience, just jump on the internet, Snapchat or engage in a thousand other social media environments to find what nourishes your soul. Of course, we would say we know this is not true. Those of us who are Christians know that solitude is essential to our development. When we are “alone” (without other humans) we can learn to listen to the voice of God. We need to create “alone time” so we can effectively be with others. “Boredom” also can be an optimum time for creativity – for developing solutions to problems we face or challenges that are present in our environment.

Turkle’s talk was rich and her book is richer still. I would encourage you to read it. We have given the signal, at times, to our students that it is good to always be connected. That is not true. Technology can empower our educational work, but real learning does occur in live meetings with professors where people interact face-to-face. Turkle suggested two things we can do to reverse the addictive technology trend we have encouraged. First, encourage conversation. In conversation, you have to pay attention to one person and one thing at a time. It makes us more empathetic, and in that context, more human. She noted that conversation is the “talking cure.” Second, cultivate solitude. When we can teach ourselves how to be alone it will enable us to relate to God and his creation more effectively. One of her suggestions was to teach yourself to read long books again and avoid the movie!

I am back on campus this week, and we had our first meeting. It began with, “Let’s keep the technology ‘closed’ for our time together . . . ”

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