Book Reviews

BkRev #1738. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. (2015). Sherry Turkle. New York: Penguin Books, 436 pp. $17.00. ISBN: 978-0-14-310979-2.

Michael Stowe

College of Arts and Sciences

University of South Florida

mjstowe@usf.edu.

As academic advisors strategize to find new ways of offering collaborative assistance to students who increasingly must divide their time and attention, varied communication technologies offer potential tools for outreach and guidance. These tools also present new challenges. Turkle indirectly addresses one of these challenges. Specifically, she argues for face-to-to face conversation as a way to build empathetic relationships in an increasingly technological society. Empathetic relationships are central to successful advising, so her misgivings about overreliance on technology at the expense of personal connections could play an important role in advisors’ strategies.

While her message is important, it suffers from hyperbolic framing – Turkle borrows Rachel Carson’s term “silent spring” to describe a technological “assault on empathy” (2015, p. 4) and declares the stakes in a digital world to be “a sense of a self in control of itself [and] a citizenry that can think for itself” (p. 314). A lack of discussion of other sociological issues hampers a critical argument – she lauds seventeenth-century English coffeehouses as models of a public sphere despite admitting they “required leisure and some money [and were] not a place for women” (p. 332). She opens the door for a conversation about class, gender, and implicitly race, and then breezes past the opportunity. This move is an unfortunate oversight given technology’s potential to provide a more democratic public space, something Kishonna Gray (2015) highlights in her discussion of Black cyberfeminism when she argues that “[d]igital spaces provide [women] with a significant opportunity” to “recognize [their] privileges… and move toward fairness and equality for all women” (p. 189).

Despite its shortcomings, Reclaiming Conversation offers valuable insights for advisors, making it a useful, if limited, tool. Its greatest contributions exist not in the philosophical conversation but in more practical discussions of education and business. Turkle offers the most important piece of advice in the education section when she dismisses the analogy between technological addiction and substance abuse by indicating a need to use technology “with greater intention” rather than simply abstaining (2015, p. 216). This intentionality suggests a need for unitasking, which opposes a pedagogical shift that “embrace[s] the culture of hyper attention” by “competing with students’ screens” (p. 218). Turkle rejects this move, suggesting instead that teachers use moments of boredom not as opportunities to provide more information but as space in which to encourage student imagination. Her focus on intentionality and imagination aligns with advising goals encouraging reflective thinking.

Institutions are implementing new technologies like Motimatic’s automatic motivation system, which utilizes largely passive marketing on social media platforms, and finding new ways to use older technology, like SMS as a way of reminding students of important dates. Advisors will need to find ways of adapting these tools to serve developmental conversations rather than letting the tools replace personal contact. Turkle’s call to build personal connections generally can aid advisors specifically as they interact with an evolving world. They will need to seek out more sociologically aware texts like Gray’s, but this text, while, unlikely to make a top ten list of resources, can play a role in this ongoing conversation.

References

Gray, K. L. (2015). Race, gender, and virtual inequality: exploring the liberatory potential of black cyberfeminist theory. In R. A. Lind (Ed.), Producing theory in a digital world 2.0: the intersection of audiences and production in contemporary theory, Vol 2 (pp. 175-192). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

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