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We present edited versions of ourselves

November 16, 2015

A new book, “Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age,” begins with a framework provided by Thoreau: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

So goes the book: one chair—conversations with oneself; two chairs—conversations among family, friends, and lovers; and three chairs—conversations in society, such as the work place.

L preferred a different quote from Samuel Johnson: “We had talk enough, but no conversation.”

Indeed, author Sherry Turkle discusses a growing aversion to face-to-face conversation in favor of the controlled talk of text and email. In other words, a preference for the carefully edited life—social interaction as performance.

Many people the author spoke with called Facebook and Twitter their “journals,” yet none really used them for self interrogation and reflection, as you might do with a journal.

Inevitably, social media is about pleasing your friends in the moment, regardless of how you’re feeling deep down. You present an edited self; a performance.

I like this, but such criticism risks creating a Straw Man to be conveniently pummeled. Even before we had virtual lives, we presented edited versions of ourselves. We avoided confrontation. We fled introspection.

We found other, non-digital ways to be dysfunctional.

If a family chooses to air all its differences on “Gchat” instead of face-to-face, well, there are worse things. If they carefully revise their opinions before clicking Send, it may be a useful thing.

But in favor of spontaneous conversation, which can be surprising for both the listener and the speaker, philosopher Heinrich von Kleist refers to “the gradual completion of thoughts while speaking.”

He quotes a French proverb that “appetite comes from eating,” and in the same way “ideas come from speaking.” Aversion to surprise is not new. Now we have new ways to avoid it.

Behavioral changes are not all generational. Turkle finds a great many children wish their parents would put down their phones. They want their parents’ attention. They need it.

This inability to attend to the people in front of us—at the dinner table, on a date, in meetings—has an addictive quality similar to gamblers tethered to their slot machines.

The omnipresent device makes small but persistent, and pernicious, demands. The phone permits every moment to filled with something, even if it’s the cheapest blip from the commodified social space of the Internet.

There are no lulls or, heaven forbid, boredom. About interruptions, Turkle points out, “When people say they’re “addicted” to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide. They are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid.”

What Turkle hears most is that the phone makes it easier to avoid boredom or anxiety. Turkle wisely notes, “Boredom and anxiety are signs to attend more closely to things, not to turn away.”

“When talk becomes difficult or when talk turns to quiet, we’ve given ourselves permission to go elsewhere.”

This includes leaving conversations with ourselves. The deflection away from solitude might be the most corrosive, because it is in solitude that we develop our capacity for empathy.

As Turkle says, “If you are comfortable with yourself, you can put yourself in someone else’s place.”

And, too, we risk equating solitude with loneliness, but they have much different psychologies. Paul Tillich wrote: “Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”


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