Time for a talk: Tech expert says we settle for connection but crave conversation

Even heavy technology users are setting aside time to turn off their devices. The goal is to have real conversations with real people.

One couple's solution is a swear jar for tech: Use your phone at dinner, pay a $10 fine

New Year's Eve dinner with family and friends, like all dinners, is device-free for Alice Lara and her husband Rafael Perez (front right corner).

(Aline Lara Rezende is a contemporary art and design curator, designer, writer and a fellow in journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs. @alinini_)

My sister Alice Lara and her husband Rafael Perez have one house rule they follow to the letter: when sitting at the dining table, they must put away their smartphones.

Otherwise, there are consequences. Whoever breaks the rule has to pay a $10 fine. It's like the traditional swear jar, but for technology.

The Toronto couple are heavy tech users. Lara, 35, works as a web developer for an advertising agency, and Perez, 34, works in the movie industry as a visual special effects artist. They spend easily 12 hours a day in front of a screen. Online. Connected. But not during dinner.

A couple of years ago they came up with their playful rule — to be present and enjoy the only time of the day they eat together.

"It is a fun way to bring awareness to how we use our phones, and how the urgency that notification sounds and blinks create disrupts our attention, and in the end they are not urgent at all," Perez says. "Most of the time, they can wait." 

Others have had similar ideas. Ikea in Taiwan, for example, created a family dinner table that forces people to stop using their phones during meals. Its version of the traditional hot pot won't heat up unless there are phones underneath it. 

Renowned tech critic Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the relationship between humans and machines, sees face-to-face conversation as a cure for the pervasive problem of "mediated life." Turkle believes digital media are making people less sensitive to one another's thoughts and feelings.

When people are focused on their devices, most of the time they're silent. Think of those dinner companions who refuse to look up from their phones. If they do look up, it's often to talk about what's on their phones.

"Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do," she writes in her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. "Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It's where we develop the capacity for empathy."

Turkle is not against technology; she studies robots. But she advocates better and more mature design and use of personal devices.

We might be connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation, technology author Sherry Turkle says. (Shutterstock)

In an interview with CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti, Turkle highlights the differences between connection and conversation.

"[We need to] make sure we don't settle for connection when really what we crave is conversation. You are looking for it because it is the talking cure for a crisis in empathy."

In business and in personal relationships, we often choose to text, rather than talk. We might be connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation. And it's in open-ended, spontaneous conversations that we learn to make eye contact, to read gestures and tones, to comfort or challenge one another, Turkle explains.

Her main advice is to reclaim "sacred spaces" for conversation with family. She recommends making the kitchen, dining room and car device-free zones.

Even at work, she says, studies show conversation is good for the bottom line. She observes that workers do more and have greater collaboration, productivity and creativity when they are given both privacy and opportunity for conversation.

"I don't think we have to give up our devices. We have to use them more mindfully," Turkle says. "They are not accessories! Maybe this is my basic message. These technologies are not accessories. They are powerful mind tools that can really affect how we think, and we should treat them that way."

But not everyone thinks technology prevents conversation.

Cosmin Munteanu, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, studies how older adults use technology. His lab tries to get people who aren't wired to connect with others — such as playing video games to close the generation gap between grandchildren and grandparents.

Cosmin Munteanu, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, says the problem isn't technology, it's how we use it.

"The conversation problem is not a matter of etiquette in social gatherings, it is about being inclusive of everyone in our social network and facilitating that," he says.

"The problem is not technology," Munteanu says. "It is how we use it."

Others, like former Google "product philosopher" Tristan Harris, say the real problem is how our digital products are designed.

Success and stock prices often depend on user engagement, page views, or likes. Whether it's a meditation app, an informative website, or an addictive game, they are all competing for attention, which means they win by being smarter at getting users to spend their time, and then come back. This is called the attention economy.

"It means online publishers gradually converting headlines into curiosity gaps and clickbait," he says. "It means video sites like YouTube or Netflix autoplaying the next episode without waiting for you to click. It means businesses sending push notifications and email to pretend you are missing something important if you don't check.

"And we're vulnerable to these mechanisms. Knowing their tricks doesn't inoculate us to their efficacy."

Slot-machine behaviour

Harris says there's a struggle between our own decision-making and the efforts of a few big corporations that want to make choices for a few billion of us. He says these online experiences are designed based on our "built-in instincts for novelty, curiosity gaps, social approval and fear of missing something important."

The attention economy model forces these companies to "adversarially exploit these instincts to keep us glued to screens," Harris says.

His online manifesto, Time Well Spent, invites designers, entrepreneurs and engineers to think of a more ethical and mature way to develop our day-to-day technology.

He proposes online services give users more options and control. For example, offering choices to flag and limit time spent on social media apps — instead of the slot-machine behaviour of endless scrolling for small rewards encouraged today. Another option could be to turn off session-prolonging techniques like autoplaying videos.

He also suggests an alternative model to measure success. Instead of counting followers, page views, likes, or time engaged, we could consider meaningful, real-life experiences that resulted from an online service.

When there's a whole industry working to control how we spend our time, disconnecting from digital devices can be a tall order for willpower alone.

Harris put it this way in his talk Distracted? Let's Demand a New Kind of Design: "Mindfulness is critical, but [our set of choices today] is like being on a diet and someone is handing you menus of burgers and fries." 


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