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Six Minutes of Solitude from Digital Technology

Posted by Rachel Daeger, CAE on Nov 18, 2015 12:00:00 PM

Digital TechnologyCan you do it? Can you sit still and do nothing for six minutes or would you resort to giving yourself an electric shock to pass the time? Have digital technology and our personal electronic devices really made us so fearful of spending time with our own thoughts and dismissive of the feelings of others?

I attended ASAE’s Annual Meeting for the first time this year and while I came home with a notebook full of tools to implement in my career, Sherry Turkle’s closing keynote still has me thinking three months later. Turkle shared insights from her recently-published book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”

She related the details of a study where test subjects would rather receive an electric shock than sit alone for six minutes. This surprised me because, as a mom, my first reaction was that six minutes of solitude sounded like heaven—a sentiment echoed by other moms I spoke with, so I was very skeptical of her claim. Google came to the rescue with details courtesy of a Time article from July 2014.

“Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67 percent of male participants in one study “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” wrote University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval. Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25 percent participation rate.

The electric shock study was just one of her examples of how digital devices are leading to the death of conversation, of thoughtfulness and empathy. “I’ve studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I’ve learned the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful they change not only what we do, but also who we are,” states Turkle.

She related several powerful examples from her research:

  • The presence of a cell phone, even a phone that is turned off while sitting on the table, causes a group to anticipate an interruption.
  • Groups have adopted a “Rule of Three.” We have begun to have conversations in groups of at least three people so one person can disengage at a time to check a phone, leaving the other two to continue talking. The members of the group will rotate this role.
  • Because we already know each other’s news, we talk about what is on our phone versus what is on our minds.
  • People have developed a new skill called “fubbing,” which is the practice of texting while talking.
  • I was personally convicted by her insight that texting, and in my case emailing, allows for editing which fuels the compulsion to always be right. In conversations I’m likely to call someone by the wrong name or make a comment I regret so being able to craft communication that is “perfect” appeals to me.

She believes digital devices are leading to a decline in empathy, our ability to understand how someone else feels. Turkle quoted this research, “College students who hit campus after the year 2000 have empathy levels that are 40 percent lower than those who came before them, according to a study by University of Michigan researchers.”

Here are some of her suggestions to reverse these trends:

  • Employers should screen for the ability to converse.
  • Everyone should purposely participate in a revitalization of public conversation.
  • We need to respect the power of the device.
  • We become less effective with every multi-task. Brains crave the fast, the predictable, a natural high. It takes an effort to stay focused.
  • Learn to listen to your own voice. Protect your creativity. Go slowly. You have permission to say “I’m thinking.”

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. 

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Topics: Association, Success, Career, digital technology

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