Book Review: “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle

Sensei Sherry Turkel is a long time student of digital life, her book titles alone have galvanized arguments about digital life, The Second Self (1984), Life on the Screen (1995), Alone Together (2011), and now Reclaiming Conversation. From the very beginning, she has observed and critiqued how people digital and Internet technology has entered our lives, what we do in this digitally augmented world, and what it means.

Given her breadth and depth of experience, it would be wise to pay attention to what she has to say. Over the decades, she has found many fascinating and positive developments as computers and the Internet have spread into everyday life. I’m afraid that Professor Turkle has been trending pessimistic, and her latest book we she that she is gone way, way negative.

In particular, she is alarmed by the psychological and social disaster being wreaked by personal devices, which are always present, always on, and always connected. She sees that “constant connection is changing the way that people think of themselves. It is shaping a new way of being . I call it “I share, therefore I am.” We share out thoughts and feelings in order to feel whole.” (p. 47)

The book is organized around the theme of the importance of “conversation” to becoming and being human. She talks about a range of forms of “conversation”, using Thoreau’s metaphor of three chairs:

  • “One chair” conversations: solitude and self reflection
  • “Two chair” conversations: face-to-face talk with friends, family, lovers
  • Three chair” conversations: the social world of school, work, government

She adds a “fourth chair”, conversations with machines.

Most of the book documents a “flight from conversation”, as people choose to connect digitally though text and images, hiding behind screens. The big problem Turkle describes is that the more you “connect” digitally, the less practice you have in unedited, “boring”, face-to-face conversations, which pushes you to retreat further.

The cost of this retreat is a loss of ability to understand other people, empathy in all its forms and implications. And this reduces your ability to think and understand your own self, as well.

These costs can be seen in personal relations, families, in schooling, at work, and everywhere. The bulk of the book is a long recitation of the damage and it’s consequences. It isn’t pretty, and Sensei Turkle isn’t happy about it. We should be unhappy about it, too.

I’ll leave you to read the book to learn her arguments and the supporting evidence. If you have read Greenfield [2], you’ve see a lot of the evidence and arguments before. And Ansari gives you a picture of the dating game [1].

Let’s focus here on what can and should be done to “Reclaim Conversation”, according to Sensei Turkle.

How did we get here? Basically, she says, our mobile devices and their apps are designed to engage and keep you engaged. Sometimes this is done deliberately (e.g., to make money) and sometimes thoughtlessly (i.e., careless design that follows the easiest path of common practices). Either way, our devices and apps turn out to be diabolically good at this particular effect, and, consequently, of pulling people away from conversation.  Even though that probably isn’t the intention, that is the effect.

Turkle rejects the term “addictive” in this context, because that is a cop out, implying an uncontrollable, helpless, dependency. But, she says, we can choose to reclaim conversation.

Remember the power of your phone. It’s not an accessory. It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are.” (p. 319)

Our devices do play to our weaknesses, and we need to acknowledge this human frailness, not ignore or even exploit it.

We should design technology to take account of our vulnerabilities—those phones that release us rather than try to hold us. ” (p. 361)

Yes, ma’am! I’m with you.

The penultimate chapter suggests ways to redesign technology and the way we use it. She gives us a bakers dozen “Guideposts”. These are:

  • Slow down
  • Protect our creativity. Take your time and take quiet time. Find your own agenda and keep your own pace.
  • Create sacred spaces for conversation
  • Think of unitasking as the next big thing
  • Talk to people with whom you don’t agree
  • Obey the seven minute rule (Give a conversation seven minutes before abandoning it)
  • Challenge the view of the world as apps (i.e., specific actions will have specific, immediate response; relationships are things to be “managed, etc.)
  • Choose the right tool for the job
  • Learn from moments of friction
  • Remember what you know about life
  • Don’t avoid difficult conversations
  • Try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking
    (pp 319-232)

If we were looking for design suggestions for the next killer app (actually, we’d like it to be “non-killer”, no?), Turkle’s chapter is a disappointment. Most of the advice starts with “turn in off” (and be sure to put it away, too) moves through “be more amish” [3, 4], and on to “talk to each other, even if it is difficult”.

This is all great advice, but for device and app builders it amounts to “just quit it”. And, truly, you cant fix an over reliance on “there’s an app for that” with yet another app. You fix that by carving out “sacred space” for solitude and conversation.

And, Turkle assures us, the evidence shows that we can recover rapidly, and reclaim conversation and our humanity. Efforts to disconnect digitally and talk in person pay rapid benefits to everyone involved.  And, after all, digital artifacts may provoke and aid reflection and conversation. “It is never bad to have a new evocative object. What matters is how you use it.” (p. 88)

There are a few technologies that deserve particular note.

Turkle is not a big fan of “big data” and the Quantified Self movement which, she cogently describes as “people bring in data from sensors and programs and attempt to construct stories about them.” (p. 92)   The narrative is the important thing, of course, but is the data helpful or harmful? Turkle recounts a blog called “The Quantified Breakup”, in which the writer logged many kinds of data about her live after a divorce. But, Turkle points out, though the data is striking, and it is raw material for a story, but the numbers “need their narrative”. Are we, she asks, “performing for and deferring to the algorithm”? (p. 94

Apps can give you a number; only people can give you a narrative.” (p. 81) and “Ii]t is striking that some of our most-used applications—such as Facebook—seem set up to inspire narration;” But “social media also can inhibit inner dialog, shifting our focus from reflection to self-presentation” (p. 81).

What matters is how you use it.

Turkle is also not a huge fan of MOOCs, and she is not happy at the uncritical enthusiasm for MOOCs that seems to focus on “efficiency” and “productivity”, as well as questionable claims about transparency and letting everyone be heard. There is no real conversation in a MOOC, and the alleged benefits are chimeral. Students have no chance to learn to think and argue in real time, nor how to deal with uncomfortable topics and thoughts, nor how to learn to stand up for themselves.

She claims that MOOCs are generally unsuccessful unless the video and online component is augmented by conversation, ideally face to face. These “hybrids” may, ultimately, be the trend of the future. But she does not believe that education can work without conversation, without “being there”, and being together.

Finally, based at MIT, Turkle has worked with AI researchers for many years. She is not in any way amused by the notion of conversing with “empathic” computers. Machines cannot offer “empathy” because they “have none to offer”.  She asks, “Has the simulation of empathy become empathy enough? The simulation of communion, communion enough?” (p. 338) (Obviously not!)

Actually, she is not opposed to robot assistants, she is against the notion that we want robot “companions”. The problem of isolation will not be solved by robots who are “good enough” to simulate human empathy. So we should design helpful but not conversational robots? I’ll have to think about this point.

Reading Turkle beside McGonigal [5] is quite interesting and challenging. These two Senseis refer to much of the same research, and have similar understandings of how humans use digital technology. Yet McGonigal seems to deploy the power of these devices to fix what is wrong with people, and Turkle argues that is a bad idea.

For example, McGonigal finds great benefits in recruiting “allies” from digital communities, and cites the benefits of support and encouragement via text message and other digital forms. For that matter, the “Superbetter” method employs a lot of digital sharing, in service of the goal of discovering and strengthening yourself.

Turkle is a conventionally trained psychotherapist, and must surely view Superbetter as “better than nothing—maybe”. But I think Turkle would say it’s not a substitute for actual human therapists.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. McGonigal is using some of the techniques from digital games which are incredibly efficient at behavior change to, well, change behavior. This may be exploiting human “vulnerability” to these powerful devices and apps, and it is certainly taking advantage of the fact that a phone is “a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are.”, as Turkle says. But McGonigal’s Superbetter is designed so that people can control and direct the effects, and use them to change in ways that they want and need to.

Furthermore, while McGonigal appropriates techniques perfected in digital games, she is clear that they usually work best face-to-face. First choice of “allies” would be your family and friends, who care for you, and want better ways to help you get better.One of the biggest win-wins in Superbetter is how good it is for the caregivers.

In fact, the Superbetter game is a framework that invites and stimulates difficult conversations between people with troubles and challenges, and their loved ones, friends, and other “allies”. Asking someone to “play a game” with you opens the door to conversation, conversations which may well be the critical healing factor.

I’m sure that Turkle would say that is surely the right idea, and if the “gameful” elements give you something to talk about, and a safe situation to start talking to each other, then it is on the right track.  The Superbetter game is “a new evocative object. What matters is how you use it.”  McGonigal uses it to fix things.

If I’m basically on target here, then we can see that something like Superbetter may be an inkling of the kind of design Turkle is thinking of.  It uses the powers of apps and devices to lead people into important, difficult conversations even if she wouldn’t be very content with Superbetter as a substitute for psychotherapy.


  1. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  2. Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, New York, Random House, 2015.
  3. Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, New York, Penguin Group, 2010.
  4. Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013.
  5. Jane McGonigal, Superbetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  6. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press, New York, 2015.


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