Is Digital Connectivity Killing The Conversation?

During Monday’s KQED Forum with Michael Krasny, MIT sociologist and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle led a discussion that struck a major chord with everyone in the AirPR office. It centered around the assertion that “a lack of face-to-face communication driven by increased smartphone use is diminishing people’s capacity for empathy”.

Whoa. Hold the phone. Stop the press. Say wut?!

As someone steeped in the world of communications, this statement really hit a nerve. Mostly because of its undeniable plausibility.

I often notice when walking to the office, getting in the elevator, or standing in line that the default action during any sort of “down time” is to whip out a smartphone. And to be clear, I am including myself as a guilty party in this observation.

So, is it true? Are we really turning more to our phones than to each other? And is all this “connectedness” actually pulling us apart?

Below are some of the compelling takeaways from the KQED interview (which you can listen to in its entirety here), but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this matter.

What are the implications of this on an industry (PR) whose job it is to facilitate conversation through mediums that are primarily digital these days?

And if the digital world does indeed strip out the richness of conversation, how can communicators demonstrate authenticity and ensure their companies don’t lose empathy for their customers and employees?

Please share your comments below as we feel this is an important conversation for all of us to have…digitally and in person.

KQED FORUM TAKEAWAYS

1. With all the technology available today, we’re more connected than ever but we’re not having true conversations. The move away from conversation to mere connection is actually having a detrimental effect on people’s capacity for compassion.

2. Our reliance on digital communications means we’re missing what conversation can offer. Conversation is the gold standard for teaching the profound response to other people (aka empathy).

3. When an apology is made face-to-face, this yields a tremendous amount of information and learning about the dance of human connection and empathy. Typing “I’m sorry” at a computer loses all important clues and cues (body language, tone, eye contact, etc.).

4. The face is what brings us alive to each other. In the absence of a face, people feel a disinhibition and permission to say things they would never say to a face, but that’s changing. We are now seeing the same desensitization typically reserved for digital, faceless  encounters during in person interactions.

5. Neural pathways are fundamentally changing because the brain adapts to what it does most. It’s becoming more difficult for people to read long books because our brains have become used to short bursts of content.

6. Smartphones have made us the promise that we’ll never have to be bored, but boredom is your imagination calling. It’s when the brain resets. People need mental down time.

7. We can do something about reclaiming conversation. It’s been shown that when children go 5 days without devices their empathy levels come back and they rediscover a taste for conversation, solitude, and self reflection.

8. The capacity for solitude and capacity for deeply invested relationships go hand in hand. Our crisis in empathy and solitude are the building blocks for our crisis in conversation.

9. Let’s create a design for conversation which includes sacred spaces in workplace and home. These should be places where people won’t be interrupted and can have device free conversations. Make it clear to your employees that they don’t have to always be in front of their screens.

10. We have a long story ahead and people aren’t going to want to miss out on the moments that are important, so tech companies have to make technologies that help us lead the lives we want to lead.