THE GLORY OF God is humanity fully alive, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus.
If Irenaeus is correct and Christian discipleship is centered on following Jesus toward a life that is more compassionate and more alive, then Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is perhaps the most important Christian book of 2015. Granted, Turkle steers clear of the language of faith, but in calling us to become more fully human, she has penned a profoundly religious book that Christians need to read and reflect upon.
Western culture has long been losing the capacity for conversation. Embodied in the current partisan climate of Washington that competes at all costs, rather than converse and collaborate, this aversion to dialogue is symptomatic of cultural changes that have unfolded over the last 500 years. From Enlightenment philosophy to industrialization to automobility, these cultural shifts have disintegrated communities and diminished our capacity for open conversation. More recently, Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort highlighted how the increasing homogeneity of our relational networks erodes our capacity to converse with those who differ from us.
Turkle focuses primarily on an even more recent concern, the ubiquitous tyranny of the smartphone. Although not a Luddite who would advocate abolishing phones, Turkle fiercely describes the ways our phones inhibit our capacity for connection, conversation, and empathy. “We are being silenced by our technologies,” she maintains. With joint Harvard doctorates in sociology and psychology, Turkle backs her claims with a vast body of research. Even a silenced phone sitting on the table during conversation, she notes, changes the dynamics of what we discuss and how.
Face-to-face conversation, Turkle argues, is the most basic human activity. In conversation, we learn to listen and to be empathetic. Our mobile devices also impede our capacity for solitude, a skill that is vital to our development from childhood onward. Turkle emphasizes that it is in solitude that our minds are formed and we develop a distinctive voice. In exercising this voice in private conversations with family, friends, and lovers, and in public conversations, it is refined and our capacity for solitude and self-reflection is further enhanced, drawing us ever-deeper in this virtuous cycle.