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The perils of phubbing

Do you know what phubbing is? 

It’s texting while maintaining eye contact with someone in the real world (short for phone snubbing). And according to a new book, Reclaiming Conversation, it’s more than a minor annoyance.

The book’s author, Sherry Turkle, who is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, argues that we are repeatedly allowing digital technologies to take precedence over actual people – and it’s having a profound effect on how human beings relate to one another.

A lot of the time, we’d rather talk to our machines than to our family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances – and we’re no longer embarrassed about showing it.

So enchanted are we by our devices, Turkle says, that the real world often feels like an interruption. What might once have been seen as ‘friendly service’ in the supermarket, for example, now feels like an inconvenience that’s keeping us from our phones.

It’s children and young people who are the real victims of this decline in real-world conversation, she argues. A whole generation is growing up accustomed never to get the undivided attention of their parents. Adults are too busy checking their Facebook feeds at breakfast and their email messages at the park ever to focus fully on what their children are feeling or saying.

The pull of technology that Turkle describes is easily recognised. Human beings, she explains, are wired to crave what neuroscientists call ‘the seeking drive’ – the kind of hit that we get from scrolling through our twitter feed. In other words, social media makes us feel wanted and a part of things.

And sure enough, if you’ve ever sat in a meeting wondering what it is that other people are so interested in on their laptops while you’re speaking to them, you will be able to understand why she’s so pained. It’s the height of rudeness. Yet we have allowed it to become socially-acceptable rudeness.

If you’ve ever sat talking to a friend only to have your conversation disrupted by messages on her phone, you’ll identify with Turkle’s complaint that these interruptions make us shy away from emotional or difficult subjects. Even when they are silent, she notes bitterly, our phones disconnect us.

But her bigger argument – that all this is leading to a decline in empathy – is less persuasive. For a start, this argument largely rests on evidence that American students now show 40% less empathy than they did 10 years ago. It’s not clear from the book how robust this research is. Much depends on it, but she merely mentions one study and moves on.

Even if it is true, it’s not clear that technology is to blame – or, at any rate, entirely to blame. 

How different is it for a child when a young mother checks her phone at breakfast from when my children were young and I was half-listening to the radio as I made the toast? Is talking on Facebook in the park a world away from what my children experienced when I was so obviously more interested in talking to other adults in the playground than in responding to them?

Reclaiming Conversation raises as many questions as it answers. Turkle's arguments too often feel like assertions. But what the book certainly points to – at the very least – is the pressing need to establish some manners for managing technology. 

So, just to be clear, I’ll have no phubbing anywhere near me, thank you very much.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle, is published by Penguin.

Reviewed by Geraldine Bedell