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Is technology really making us sad, isolated, and incommunicative?


As a kind of counterpoint to our earlier post today on digital life and “busyness”, The New Inquiry has a piece by Nathan Jurgenson arguing that when we debate the merits of technology, we do so in overly simple and dualistic terms. Technology is framed as either wholly good, or wholly bad. This argument emerges in the course of Jurgenson’s critique of Reclaiming Conversation by science and technology professor Sherry Turkle, a popular book suggesting that digital technology is making us incapable of real conversation and genuine human contact. Here’s an excerpt from Jurgenson’s piece:

Digital connection is deeply interwoven through social life; it is made of us and is thus as infinitely complex as we are. Anything social is inherently shaded with both good and bad. It may be good or bad for some and not others, at some times and not others, in some places and not others. Reclaiming Conversation, like too much other writing about new technologies, is invested in the false question of whether the Internet is centrally good or bad, as if technology were a separate thing that could be subtracted from social life rather than being part and parcel of it.

This oversimplification pre-empts her critique, so that she asks not what technology (including language itself) affords or discourages, and how and under what circumstances, but “what do we forget when we talk through machines?” This slanted question elides the issue of how communication is always mediated by power, space, bodies, language, architecture, and other factors as well as by the particular medium through which it occurs. To prescribe one form of media — to privilege speaking over writing over texting — would require deep description and analysis of the context: who is speaking, to what ends, and why. Turkle too often assumes screen-mediated communication comes in only one flavor, which cannot grasp the complexities of our always augmented sociality, to say nothing of how screens are differently used by those with different abilities.

Image via The New Inquiry.