Michael Kieran

Technology, imaging, and more.

A Few Sacred Spaces: No Facebook at the Dinner Table

Black-and-white photo of 1950s family reading a newspaper Sherry Turkle, the MIT sociologist and author, has a compelling essay on The Networked Primate in the September issue of Scientific American, in which she bemoans the way digital tools are rapidly eroding our tolerance for being alone.

I’ve read – and dismissed – such warnings before, from Turkle and others. And while acknowledging that something inevitably is lost as technology becomes ever more central to everyday life, I’ve tended to assign a low value to what’s gone missing, waving it away alongside Plato’s over-wrought concern that the written word would destroy memory and knowledge.

But there’s an element of truth in Turkle’s essay that’s increasingly hard to ignore: when technology constantly distracts people from being alone, it damages their ability to form true relationships. In part, this is a consequence of an “always on” mentality, with people carrying their phones with them everywhere, even to bed, and responding to texts and emails at all hours of the day and night.

There’s also the issue of authenticity, as people today are rewarded for being someone in social media that they could never be in real life. Your Facebook timeline is curated and so is mine. Turkle recounts a teenager telling her that the problem with conversation is that “It takes place in real time. You can’t control what you’re going to say.”

Plus, these digital worlds are ever more pervasive. “We don’t have an opt-out option from a world with this technology,” Turkle says. “The question is, How are we going to live a more meaningful life with something that is always on and always on you? And wait until it’s in your ear, in your jacket, in your glasses.”

For starters, she calls for families to designate media-free “sacred spaces” like the dinner table and the car, where the focus is on conversation. “It’s really about calling into question our dominant culture of more, better, faster. We need to assert what we need for our own thinking, for our own development, and for our relationships with our children, with our communities, with our intimate partners.”


The full essay is available in the September issue of Scientific American (currently on newsstands) or online behind their paywall.


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