Sherry Turkle at World Business Forum 2012

Sherry Turkle at World Business Forum 2012

Sherry Turkle took the World Business Forum 2012 podium right after lunch on day one.

Dr. Turkle, a licenced clinical psychologist, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and Director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that iconic univeristy’s, Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology and Society, presented a talk entitled “Alone Together: the Impact of Relentless Communication”.

Dr. Turkle’s talk focused on the importance of reclaiming conversation — because, Dr Turkle believes — if we fail to do so, we are setting ourselves and our society up for trouble.  The trouble she cautions against is a growing inability to feel secure in self reflection.

Dr. Turkle paraphrases Winston Churchill (who was reflecting on the role of architecture): “We make our technologies, and our technologies in turn make and shape us. Our current technologies are psychological and social game changers.” Her warning is that from her analysis of the data, “we are not as strong as technology’s pull”.

The generation of people who “sleep with their smart phones” are “alone together”, in Dr. Turkle’s view.

“Many people have grown fearful of the give and take of conversation. Many people don’t feel secure about their feelings or thoughts until they share them [on social media or SMS]”.

In the New York Allegravita office and in our design studio, it has struck me as quite queer that younger members of our team tend to be more inclined to wear earbuds for much of the time they’re working at their desks. Admittedly, its been quite a while since I’ve been a desk jockey at a desk in a western country (more than a decade, actually), but the sense of shared experience with the office music seems to have become a thing of the past. I do admit to a fondness for the days when my office had that shared feeling of love or hate for the music that some team member had decreed to be the tunes of the hour — that was all a part of the typical ad agency office experience until recently (I’d be interested to hear from other agency heads on their office music policies in this nosebleedingly new decade).

Dr. Turkle expressed concern that we as a society are forgetting that “conversation → connection”. In answer to critics, she says, “no, many small sips of conversation do not add up to one big gulp”. She says there is a certain dynamic of conversation in which we are aware of tone, of nuance, and we’re called upon to see things from others’ points of view. “We learn to negotiate [in conversation]; we learn how to have conversations with ourselves by having conversations with others. We need conversation to have self reflection. Imagine leadership without highly developed self reflection skills.”

Dr. Turkle contends that in this world of constant contact, we measure our performance by numbers of emails sent, by customer tweets responded to, or by our Klout score. However, she says, this communications culture has created a business world in which we are “never uninterrupted”. In other words, we are rarely alone with our own thoughts.

After this chilling warning, Dr. Turkle then moved into a finer discussion on the value of solitude. “Learn to live with what is healthy, what is good for you, what makes sense. We don’t need to throw our technology away, but we do need to develop the capacity for solitude for the good of productivity, creativity, and the capacity to lead.”

“I’m a partisan for conversation”, Dr. Turkle closed.

Its a powerful warning, and one that I’ll be heeding more within our team, our partners and my family.

Thanks to the World Business Forum 2012 team which which kindly invited me to represent Allegravita and attend the conference as their guest.

Please consider all our blogged stories from the World Business Forum 2012:

Management guru Jim Collins, on “return on luck”
NYC property mogul Barbara Corcoran on her top-8 lessons learned from her career as an entrepreneur
MIT psychologist professor Sherry Turkle on the danger presented to society by being always-connected
Interbrand CEO Jez Frampton on what makes a great brand
Nissan SVP Andy Palmer on the importance of melding engineering with marketing and communications
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch’s choicest quotes from the conference
Harvard Business School’s Prof. Michael Porter on ‘Shared Value’ for-profit CSR
Inspirational entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s choicest quotes from the conference


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