Sherry Turkle: Empathy, Solitude, Power Of ‘The Boring Bits’

by Steven Rosenbaum, Sustainable Media Center

Sherry Turkle is a philosopher who thinks about the nature of being human, at a time when technology is turning our social world upside down.In the academic world, she’s a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT. Her TED talk, “Connected, but Alone” has been viewed 7.5 million times.I invited her to speak to a group of high school students and tech and media leaders. What she had to say startled them all.“Many people who work with the Internet think the Internet is all grown up. They make that kind of mistake, instead of seeing it as just something that they can evolve and change and make anew,” said Turkle. “I think we’re in a bit of denial about where we are.”The audience was paying attention now, as this call to arms crossed generational boundaries.Turkle pulled no punches in cataloging the “peril” that the internet has wrought:— 13.5% of U.K. teen girls said their suicidal thoughts became more frequent.— 10.71% said that their eating disorders got worse.— 32% said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.She cataloged the peril in teens’ “screen life” by digging into the idea of empathy.Comparison with the years before cell phones came on the scene showed now there’s “a 40% drop in empathy, just simply measured by people’s ability to put themselves in the place of another person in the story.”Then Turkle came to her memorable seven-minute parable. “Life teaches that to get to empathy, you have to take your time. But technology offers a world that exalts efficiency.”Turkle said a college junior told her that dorm life exemplified what she called the seven-minute rule. “It takes her seven minutes to know where a conversation is going because it takes that long to get into the rhythm and the pace of another person.” Still, the student said, she hardly ever waits for those seven minutes to pass. She loses patience and she takes out her phone whenever the conversation falls silent.She told Turkle she “can’t tolerate what she calls the ‘boring bits’ of conversation.” Boring bits — that’s how we’ve come to talk about the hesitations and pauses, the natural rhythms of human conversations.”Seems life without the “boring bits” might be one of the most dangerous things about the internet we’re not considering.“It turns out that a capacity for boredom is one of the most important developmental achievements of childhood,” said Turkle. “Neuroscience teaches that when we experience boredom, the brain replenishes itself.“Solitude supports empathy. If you don’t learn to be alone, you only know how to do something. Technology makes us feel less vulnerable. We’ve controlled exchanges, but lost the important skills of nuance and the power of boredom and solitude.”Turkle’s understanding of what we’re facing was elegant in its nuance, and thoughtful enough to leave a room of both teens and adults contemplating how much the combination of the internet and their handheld devices has impacted their lives and their humanity.She finished her talk with a call to action: “We lose out as citizens in a democracy when we don’t learn how to listen to each other — especially to other people who are not like us. On the internet, we listen to fewer and fewer people who don’t share our opinions.“In today’s political climate we need young people to develop the very skills that screen time takes away, like slowing down to hear someone else’s point of view, waiting those seven minutes, and valuing those boring bits.”It’s easy to think that the issue of misinformation on the internet is the most dangerous trend we face, but in Turkle’s view, the relentless destruction of human empathy and the ability to connect may have more devastating long-term consequences.“If we reclaim our attention and our capacity for solitude, young people will have a better chance to reclaim our communities, our democracies, and our shared common purpose,” she suggested — with an urgency and optimism that’s hard to ignore.

Originally published at

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