Sherry Turkle's last book was titled Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, which pretty much describes her thesis about new technology. She's been studying the way people use technology at MIT for years, and has been more recently looking at how smart phones are changing the way people communicate and have relationships. She picks up the theme in a recent New York Times article, and describes a study that found a 40% decline in empathy among college students, "with most of the decline taking place after 2000." She writes:

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

On reading this, the first question I had was what exactly she means by "empathy." Going back to the original study she is quoting,

In general, empathy seems to enable people to relate to others in a way that promotes cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation. ...Temporal changes in empathy might help explain certain interpersonal and societal trends that suggest people today are not as empathic as previous generations.

And indeed, the study shows significant declines in empathy, which it blames on students' increasing expectations of success, increasing narcissism and individualism, changes in parenting, smaller families, and yes, changes in technology.

We speculate that one likely contributor to declining empathy is the rising prominence of personal technology and media use in everyday life. Clearly, these changes have fundamentally affected the lives of everyone who has access to them. With so much time spent interacting with others online rather than in reality, interpersonal dynamics such as empathy might certainly be altered. For example, perhaps it is easier to establish friends and relationships online, but these skills might not translate into smooth social relations in real life.

sign in cafeYes, call your mom! (Photo: Anita Hart on Flickr)

Turkle goes on to note that the phone reduces our patience; we want everything now. That we should spend more time with our own thoughts, that we should stop multi-tasking and do one thing at a time. Use the "do not disturb" functions on our phones and block out times where we are disconnected. Follow the "seven minute rule" where you let a conversation unfold, silences and all. "For conversation, like life, has silences — what some young people I interviewed called “the boring bits.” It is often in the moments when we stumble, hesitate and fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to one another."

I suppose all of these things are true. But as someone of Sherry Turkle's generation who has also seen these changes, I think she takes a particularly jaundiced view.

men on trainNobody talks to anyone on the train like they used to. (Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images)

Because it is also true that when I visited my late mother-in-law, the television was always on, distracting her from reality and her own solitude. That when you took the train, everyone was lost in their newspapers and magazines. That it was impossible to speak to young people because they were playing their music really loud on boom boxes.

screen shot of phoneMessage from the streets of Montreal (Photo: Lloyd Alter/ Emma Alter)

Or that when I was my daughter's age, my dad would be calling every day to complain "call your mother. She's upset that you never speak." Yet my daughter can be walking the streets of another city, see something she thinks I will be interested in and will send me a note.

Or that outside a very small group of friends from architecture school, almost everybody I know and talk to I met online, and when I ask on Twitter "Who's going to Greenbuild"? I get a dozen responses from people who want to get together.

Turkle also forgets that we had other things to distract us instead of our phones. Those of us who cannot sit still for more than two minutes would smoke or medicate ourselves out of a conversation with more beer. Or as I often did, just get up and leave because I couldn't bear it anymore; people thought me terribly rude. My son inherited my attention span and if he is not looking at his phone he is tapping on the table or doing some annoying physical thing; the phone is a blessed pacifier.

graph from studyEmpathy was going downhill before texting was common (Photo: Changes in Dispositional Study)

Is the phone reducing empathy? Perhaps, but it could be any number of other causes, the decline started a long time before they were common. However one could make the case that the phone has increased connectivity and understanding in other ways, broadened our horizons, and significantly decreased loneliness. I think the cup is half full, not empty.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.