Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time To Switch Off For A While

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

In my most recent blog* I was writing about what to expect in therapy and what to talk about. In the course of it I happened to mention how difficult the act of talking and speaking can be. Speaking sounds like a simple thing to do, but sometimes it is far from it. I went on to mention how, because the act of speaking can be difficult, it brings with it built-in resistances and some people will go to great lengths to avoid it. And I mentioned how we can see this going on all around us all the time, not just in terms of therapy. The most popular advances in human communication over the past decade have offered us new ways to avoid speaking. Texting and internet social sites were two new media I singled out, but you could also add Twitter and computer games and so on. It all adds up to the same thing: the reduction in actual speaking face to face between human beings.
Imagine my surprise then when I spotted an article in a Sunday newspaper recently*, entitled ‘Too Wired to Talk Like a Human’. It was about US technology guru Sherry Turkle’s new book on how technology shapes our lives. This is her third book but it is arguably bleaker, less gung-ho and less technology supportive than her first two. The new book is entitled ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
Turkle, a professor of social studies and science at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), got the idea at a dinner party of friends when the guests fell momentarily silent. It was her Pauline moment when she realised that the people around her were texting, flitting in and out of the ‘now’, so to speak, with dreamy smiles on their faces.
According to the Sunday Times article Turkle is worried that massive numbers of people are surrendering to internet compulsions that may be hollowing them out and leaving them more jittery and insecure than any previous generation. Strong stuff, indeed.
The real danger, she says, is 24 hour immersion in this techno-world because thanks to innovations in broadband, it is always on, never off. We are no longer drinking, to use the term of the article’s author, from the waters of intimacy but are engaged in a tsunami of violently loud web chatter.
Turkle is quoted as saying: “Thirty years ago I envisaged this technology as playful, something we would turn on at the end of the day, but now there is no escape. It owns us.”
She is particularly non-plussed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s famous comment that privacy is dead. This means that every teenage indiscretion, and indeed every adult one too, lives on forever in cyber space. There might well be ‘forgiving’ but, it appears, there won’t be any ‘forgetting’.
She also fears we are putting our faith in false gods such as techo-toys and the uncertain nature of friendship on social networks. “We are investing in these relationships because they offer more instant gratification than friendships in the ‘real’ which take time and generosity,” she said.
But she isn’t calling for radical measures. She likes Skype and the way it connects people across the world. She does, however, fear that many will end up friendless and isolated, vulnerable to mental illnesses such as compulsions, obsessions and phobias. Her solution? We need to switch off the phone or the computer and hear the silence every now and then. And we need to do it in a way that we believe in. Then we can begin to think about communicating and connecting again in the real world, with real people.
“Right now we are too busy communicating to think, to create and truly connect. It is about finding a new balance,” she said.

• Tuesday, January 11, 2011, ‘The Only Way Out Is In’.
• The Sunday Times, January 30, 2011., News Review Section, p.6.