“Words on paper bring something that one person has touched to the touch of another; they metonymically figure the human body by transporting its combination of persistence and perishability. Words on a screen have no such power.” —Aeon
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
Q: In your discussion of your letters to and from your mother, you talk about how the letters captured something and communicated something that a text message can’t. What is that difference?
For me it has to do with self-reflection. I think that’s what I’m getting at. That’s why I’m trying to talk about volume and velocity and evanescence, not whether a communication is digital or nondigital. With letters you receive, you have them to hold. As you do, you think about the person who wrote them and how they thought about you as they wrote them. As you write a letter, you think about the person you are writing to, your relationship to them, how they will soon hold the letter. And perhaps keep the letter. The process is close to the body. The process is slow. You are creating something that may endure. This is what can be lost in a text. It is quick. You know it will not endure. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in thinking about my mother’s letters and my letters to her.
My daughter does not write me letters or emails. She texts me. My daughter won’t have a record of telling another generation what her week was like. She doesn’t have that context for regularly reflecting on what is important to her, difficult for her. What I miss about this for my daughter is not that we’ve gone digital, but that there was this space for self-reflection that our culture no longer has as the natural order of things. I was kind of forced to do it; communicating with my mother necessitated my doing that. When I was in college, it was not unusual that you wrote a letter home every week. And my mother wrote me every week as well. Now I text my daughter, send her e-mails, give her a quick phone call. But I’m not disciplined, the way my mother was, about my own process of self-reflection. And when I was nostalgic about this to my daughter, she called me on it. When I was talking to her about the difference between what I had and what she will have, my daughter said, “write me a letter,” and so, in a sense I realize that Alone Together is really my letter to her.
So the book is written as a letter to her, but in fact, we have conspired with technology to lose significant spaces of self-reflection. There’s no way, if I’m getting a thousand e-mails a day, that I’m going to be sitting around reflecting as I desperately try to “keep up” with my e-mail. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve cornered ourselves into a communications culture, where I think we’re spending less and less time reflecting. The issue for me is reflection and spaces for reflection. Is this technology helping us find spaces for reflection? I don’t think texting and the way we’re using e-mail is helping us do that right now.
Dr. Sherry Turkle teaches at MIT. Her book, Alone Together, is a brilliant critique of Social Media, AI, robotics, and more.