Tag Archives: technology

Conversation Can Be Inefficient and Boring. We Need More of It.


I can’t wait to read Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Dr. Turkle is one of the best thinkers and writers I’ve found on the impact of technology on human life. She’s neither an alarmist nor an apologist for technology, which makes her just the catalyst we need for a nuanced discussion about this stuff.

Here’s Turkle’s latest thesis, according to the New York TimesOur rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.

That sentence hit me hard this morning. I’ve been so disheartened by what passes for intelligent discourse on the Internet lately. I’m not talking about comments on news articles–we all know how those are: sad buffet tables full of deep-fried lizard brain, liberally spiced with references to Hitler and “Obummer.” No, I’m talking about Facebook threads–friends, and friends of friends. So many words. So little reflection and understanding.

From the article:

Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”)

Ouch. [If you haven’t seen Louis CK’s bit about this on Conan’s show, go, do it now. Rated PG13 for mild language and one crude gesture.]

Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help “inoculate” children against bullying.)

This is one of the reasons family dinner is so important–and why it’s best if family dinner is a screen-free zone.

When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.

I heard Sherry Turkle interviewed on the Note to Self podcast last week, talking about how texting is replacing conversation in ways that can be concerning. We are increasingly rejecting conversation as an outmoded technology because it is so inefficient. It meanders and is sometimes boring. By contrast, texting happens when it’s convenient for us. We can craft our responses so they are “perfect” (her word, quoting numerous people who saw texting as superior to conversation).

I think she’s absolutely right. AND I appreciate that she too is a user of technology–she’s not suggesting we give the whole thing up. (Though seriously with the bad Facebook arguments. I’m about one week and a blood sugar crash away from nuking my account.)

Caroline has been taking an old iPod Touch to school to read Kindle books during her study period. But I also get texts from her sometimes during lunch. She has block scheduling, and on “grey day” she has no friends to sit with. Having someone to reach out to gives her a sense of comfort, and we’ve had some deep interactions through text.

I remember what it was like to be the new kid in the middle school and not have anyone to sit with at lunch. I would have killed for a smartphone! Not only does it give Caroline something to do, it also connects her with her larger tribe, so she can remember there’s more to life than the cliques in the lunchroom. And on “blue days” I’m happy she’s with a group of friends, and I don’t hear a peep from her.

So it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

That said, conversation is powerful precisely because it’s unscripted. (Improvisational!) I was walking James to school this morning, and he was in a bad mood and complaining about everything. I was tired and bored by his constant carping and just wanted him to stop. I was ignoring him as best I could, then I paused a minute and really listened to him (the most important skill in good conversation–and the one I often forget when I’m being too task-oriented).

He said, “Why does this street have so many leaves on it?!?”

I stopped walking and said, “Seriously? You’re complaining about the leaves??” He put his head down in his sweatshirt. I thought he was pouting, but then I saw he was laughing. So then we made it a game, to see how many ridiculous complaints we could come up with.
“That house is TOO BLUE!”
“That street lamp is labeled 157. That’s my LEAST FAVORITE NUMBER!”
“The sun is so bright on the trees it’s making my EYES HURT!”

By the time we got to school he was in a fantastic mood. And so was I.

I love technology. I’m a heavy user of it. And conversation can be inefficient, tedious, or just plain dull. But it’s also full of unexpected surprises. Much like life. And love.

What Parents Wish Teens Understood about Social Media… and Vice Versa

4175247254_0d1d063004_o_0I’ve recently had occasion to spend time with groups of teens and parents talking about spirituality in the smartphone age–how we set good boundaries and habits, how we bring our healthiest selves to that endeavor, etc. I started out asking each group, “What do you wish your [parents/teens] understood about your feelings about technology and social media?”

I had this idea that I’d write one blog post from each perspective. But as these conversations went on, I realized that was the wrong approach, and unnecessary. Because generally, teens and adults would say the same thing to one another. Here are a few themes:

Both think the other spends too much time online. Parents are worried that their teens are interacting more and more through a screen and not building healthy habits for face-to-face interaction. But youth are just as likely to say that their parents are on Facebook too much, or can’t get through a meal without checking email or responding to a text.

Both were worried about the tech world being a “burden” for the other. You can see why parents would worry about how all this screen time is affecting young minds (and sleep cycles). But youth talked about this too. One young person said, “At least for us, a lot of our screen time is social. But it seems like my parents are always working and having to check in.”

Both see the value in tech-free times. One of my conversations was with a church youth group, and it was the youth themselves (in consult with their advisors) who came up with the tech-free policy for their meetings: they turn in their phones at the beginning and get them back at the end. They also listed many of the same “sacred spaces” where phones and tablets should be off-limits as their parents did: the dinner table, whenever an important conversation is taking place, etc. One parent who heard the teens’ comments about this quipped, “If you value tech-free time so much, why do you holler when we tell you to turn it off or take away your devices?” Touche. Then again, complaining about parental boundaries is a time-honored task of the teenager. What’s more, young people don’t like being interrupted in a task any more than we do. Take a phone out of their hand mid-text and they will complain, just like we testily respond “Just a minute!!!” when someone demands our attention while on our phones.

Both admitted an impact on attention span. This expresses itself a little differently in different generations—like teens before them, today’s youth have multiple “inputs” going at once, much more than adults do—but both teens and adults feel the effects of “monkey mind.”

Both understand the difference between the curated persona and the fullness of life. The youth talked about their parents “bragging about us on Facebook,” and in turn the parents lamented the litany of selfies their kids took in order to get the right one. In a sense, though, we all understand the rules of the game: what we put online, and see online about others, is not the complete story. Then again, both groups said there’s a difference between knowing that intellectually and feeling it in our gut. It still hurts when other people seem to be living their lives better than you are.

Parents worry how this affects a child’s emerging sense of self and self-worth–rightly so, I think. But while this is just a hunch, I wonder whether young people will actually be better at handling this as adults than we currently are, because they’ve had the time and the mental elasticity to learn how.


I know there’s a difference between what people say and what people do. We all know the “right answer” to this stuff–whether we take it to heart in the heat of the moment, when the text is calling to us, or when we want that shot of affirmation from Instagram, is another matter. I also know that kids who attend a church youth group aren’t necessarily a random sampling of teens. But I found it comforting that the puzzles and struggles of the digital age are pretty universal across generations. Ultimately it highlighted the need for good communication. I firmly believe that teens will be much more likely to embrace norms that they’re a part of negotiating. Here’s a set of good resources to start that work, from the Note to Self podcast.

And for our part, we adults can do a better job of modeling healthy behavior. It reminds me of a parenting class I took years ago. We were asked to write down the attributes we wanted our children to have when they were grown up—maturity, generosity, compassion, etc. After sharing our lists with one another, the facilitator said, “Great–that’s your list to work on. You want them to have a spirit of service? Cultivate that in yourself.”

If you want your children to have a healthy relationship with technology–and have healthy relationships through technology–we need to start with ourselves.


Photo by Lauren Randolph for On Being.

All the World’s a Stage

Who lives like this?

Who lives like this?

As many of you know, we’re preparing to move a few weeks from now. We’re moving within the DC area, closer to my husband’s job. Then we have to sell our current house. Thankfully we’ve arranged things so we can move out before that happens—it needs some work to get it ready to go on the market.

We haven’t bought or sold a house since 2003. Sometime during those intervening twelve years, staging became a much bigger deal.

Back then, I remember our real estate agent giving us a few tips on making the house look good. Did you know there’s a proper ratio for how much dining room chairs should stick out from under the table? That sort of thing. I also remember walking into some homes that looked showroom quality, even though it was clear people were living there. I wondered what their secret was. I wondered where their clutter was. Now I know: staging.

These days, the real estate agent will hire a stager to take a close look at the home and put together a plan. The goal is to maximize bang for your buck, so the stager will rank and prioritize the tasks. Kitchens are important. So’s the placement of furniture. We’ll be leaving some pieces behind once we move, to help people visualize the space as well as possible.

Colors are also a big deal. Our stager gave us specific Pantone numbers to paint various rooms. Which suits us fine, frankly. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.

While we were going around looking at houses, my husband remarked how similar staging is to curating an online persona on social media. You can’t change the raw materials you have to work with. Your life is your life; your house is your house. But you go through a careful process of putting your best foot forward. We all do it to some extent, though some are more meticulous about it than others.

The problem comes when we compare our unstaged life to everyone else’s staged life and feel inadequate for falling short.

I was nervous about the staging thing at first. It’s hard not to feel judged for your design choices, and I pictured a snooty woman wrinkling her nose as she beheld our aging IKEA furniture. But our stager was great. And she won me over when she said, “You know… my house looks like a regular house—a house people actually live in. When I walk into a home that doesn’t need staging, I think ‘these people need therapy.'”

It’s a bit of a game. And naming that is important and healing.

I’m glad for the stager. We’ve made good memories in our home. That means displaying it in the best possible light so other people will see the potential for their own memories to be housed there.

This summer, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve seen friends post their vacation photos to Facebook. In the past, those pictures used to get me down sometimes. The beaches were so pristine, you see. The kids, so adorable, clutching their ice cream cones, barefoot in the perfect slanting light of dusk.

This summer I haven’t felt that way. This summer I have welcomed every photo, even living vicariously through them. A friend and I were laughing that I wasn’t bothered by the photos because I’m not working right now! That’s part of it, I’m sure (and I am working, though not full time and not in the church). But also, I recognize the rules of the game. Facebook is not reality. I sincerely hope my friends had great vacations this summer, but I also see the perfect photos for what they are—a representation of life that’s not entirely accurate.

Like my mama used to say, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Studies have shown that people can be dragged down by other people’s perfectly curated online personas. But I wonder if that will change as we “grow up” with this technology. I wonder if we are becoming more savvy about social media and the rules of the game. What do you think?

Screen Time in the Summer–What’s a Work-From-Home Mom To Do?

article-2241437-164A0D73000005DC-831_634x637When we first began practicing Sabbath, we weren’t sure what to do about technology: TV, video games, social media and the like. We started out by putting a limit on those activities without banning them outright. Each of the kids received a coin that they could spend whenever they wanted on 30 minutes of screen time, which was usually watching a TV show. Now that the kids are more into MineCraft, Wii and (in Caroline’s case) emailing and texting friends, we’ve expanded that to two 30 minute blocks.

But with Robert and me both working from home this particular summer, we needed something a little more robust. We need the kids to be more self-directed–we can’t be monitoring who’s doing what and for how long. Besides, the girls are reading more and more books on tablets–who wants to keep track of whether they’re reading or watching Netflix?

Enter the Momentum Optimization Project, in which kids can have unlimited screen time, AFTER they have completed ALL the items on a list written by the parents.

Here’s the philosophy behind it:

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am.

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves.

Here’s the summertime edition of the MOP.

We were in Dallas over the weekend, so our MOP began in earnest yesterday. Yesterday’s list included:

  • tidying rooms
  • reading for 30 minutes
  • vacuuming basement (James)
  • changing sheets on the top bunk (Margaret)
  • washing and folding one load of laundry (Caroline)

We also took a trip to the library so each kid would have an arsenal of books.

It went pretty well. With morning swim practice, the MOP doesn’t really begin in earnest until 10:30 or 11, making the day more compressed. But I could have given them slightly more to do. So today’s list includes a few of the same things, plus:

  • 45 minutes of reading instead of 30
  • emptying the dishwasher
  • going through the books in their rooms and sorting them into “keep” and “giveaway” piles. (We’re moving at the end of the summer, so I expect each day’s list will include some decluttering task.)
  • doing something creative for at least 30 minutes, e.g. playing music, doing art, Legos, or cooking.

The underlying benefit of the MOP is oftentimes you get immersed in an activity and forget all about screen time. That seems less likely to happen with James, who loooooves his video games, so I need to be mindful of that when I compile his list. But yesterday Margaret ended up inviting a friend over and didn’t have much screen time at all. And Caroline is currently making muffins, which will end up taking longer than 30 minutes.

[pause writing for a quick trip to the grocery store–we were out of eggs. While there I picked up ingredients for Margaret’s “something creative.” Both recipes will be linked below.]

The challenge for the “something creative,” clearly, is that I need to make sure they have adequate supplies. Plus they are full of questions. James wanted to know if he could use the old boxes in the garage to make a tunnel. Caroline wasn’t sure which dish to use to melt the butter in the microwave. I’m encouraging them to try to solve the problems themselves first, then ask me if they get stuck.

I’ll report back as the summer goes on, but so far, so good. They are definitely having more screen time than they would with two 30-minute tokens, but I can’t imagine it’s more than I had at that age. I did all the standard childhood-summer-in-the-1970s stuff–swimming pool, playing outside, but I also watched an epic amount of TV. (The above image is from I Dream of Jeannie, which was an indispensable part of my summers, along with Bewitched, My Three Sons, Leave It to Beaver, and of course, The Brady Bunch. And somehow I am not ruined. And the great thing about the MOP is it’s a hybrid of self-direction and parental guidance.

And I get some folded laundry out of the deal.


Margaret’s “something creative”: Creamy Orange Popsicles

Caroline’s “something creative”: Brown Sugar Muffins

Are Computers Changing Us or Are They Just Another Tool?


Sometimes I dream about starting a small group or worshiping community built around listening to podcasts and discussing them together. There are so many provocative ones that are secular, yet lend themselves to spiritual and ethical reflection: The Truth, Radiolab, New Tech City (which I’ve written about recently), and even certain segments of Pop Culture Happy Hour.

The latest is Invisibilia, which sadly has finished its season. But that gives you plenty of time to get caught up if you’ve missed it. The latest episode, Our Computers, Ourselves, was outstanding and great fodder for Spirituality in the Smartphone Age—both the book and the workshop. If you take a multi-day class with me on this topic you WILL listen to excerpts of this podcast!

The first segment follows Thad Starner, a professor at Georgia Tech who’s been wearing a computer for decades now. It’s like a home-grown Google Glass that helps him record what he’s doing, call up thoughtful details about people he’s talking to (“how’s your daughter adjusting to college?”), and much more. Thad sees his wearable computer as no different than eyeglasses—a tool that helps him make his way in the world. He sees no downside. Is he right? Does this strike some people as creepy just because it’s so new? Or is a computer that integrates with us so seamlessly—that helps us think, and on some level thinks itself—somehow different than an inert thing like a pair of spectacles? And is a smartphone really that different from a wearable computer?

The second segment is about a man who started a Twitter account to publish pictures of boorish behavior on the New York subway. At first, the affirmation he received for posting the pictures provided validation and helped him let go of his indignation. Then he began to crave the attention and got snarkier and snarkier… until the N train fought back. A great reflection about the psychology of Internet venting. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t help you let the bad feelings go. Quite the opposite.)

Check out Our Computers, Ourselves on Invisibilia. And tell me what you think.

Image is from the Invisibilia website.