The MIT professor Sherry Turkle has long been a maverick in the computer science world. From a young age, she began asking questions that no one else seemed to want to ask: How does the proliferation of personal computers affect our sense of self and our relationships? Are computers simply tools or are they more significant players influencing culture? Is technology making us lonelier—and does it have to be that way?
In previous books, like Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, she has written about her research, showing how technology warps our social interactions and affects society. But her newest book, The Empathy Diaries, is a memoir of her own life journey. Her complicated life history is a fascinating tale in itself. But it also conveys an important message about why we should question our assumptions, look for hidden truths, and promote alternative perspectives in research and technology.
Greater Good spoke with Turkle about the book and how her upbringing affected her work. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Jill Suttie: You had a pretty unusual childhood. Your biological father experimented on you as a baby when your mother wasn’t around—neglecting you, leaving you in the dark, or not responding to you, and then noting your reactions. When your mom discovered this, she left your father, but never explained to you what had happened or why you weren’t to have anything to do with him—including not using his last name. Much later, though, you found out why. How do you think this experience affected you?
Sherry Turkle: It did two big things. First, I’d searched all my life for my father, wanting to find him. Then, when I finally found him and learned all this, in a way, I lost him. I lost the fantasy that I was going to find a father. Instead, I found someone who could never relate empathically to a child.
But in finding him and learning what happened to me, I found my mother, in that I reconciled with her. By that point, she was long dead—but I had resented her my whole life for keeping me from him. When I met him, I realized that she had done this to save me and I felt such empathy, love, understanding, and connection to her.
Of course, if you fast forward my story and situate it in 2021, the empathic thing for my mother to have done was to have found some way to explain her behavior. But, the more I learned about the setting in which she was operating—the constraints she was under, where she felt that if her divorce was known in her community, she would be shunned for being married to someone odd, and I would be unmarriageable, because I was the offspring of a man who was perhaps mentally unstable—the more I understood her decision.
JS: Do you feel your experiences growing up affected the way you pursue your own career in science?
ST: Absolutely. First of all, growing up, I felt like an outsider, a person without a name, who was safest from detection if she stayed at a distance. Distance from your own situation, what anthropologists call dépaysement or decountrifying, helps you see your own life more clearly. And then, the fundamentals of my life situation taught me that in every scene, where things seem normal, there’s another story that’s happening right alongside of this seemingly normal scene. There was a family secret operating in my family that, on the surface, seemed to have nothing out of the ordinary happening in it.
So, I became a kind of anthropologist, developing a habit of taking an outsider’s view. Most importantly, when I came into any new situation, the question always in the back of my mind was, What else is happening here? I see what’s happening on the surface, but what is in the depths? And that’s the scientific question—what a good scientist asks. So, my growing up definitely influenced my choice of career and my very approach to the world.
I like to think that in The Empathy Diaries, my detective side operates throughout the book. I had become a sort of Nancy Drew, a detective of my own story, looking for clues about my life. That’s how I later came to study computer culture, using my Nancy Drew skills. When everybody said, “Oh, the computer, it’s just a tool. There’s nothing to study here,” I said, “No, there’s more going on.”
JS: You ended up at MIT studying the social impacts of technology and became kind of a maverick. Can you explain how your thinking went against conventional wisdom?
ST: When I arrived at MIT, people there thought I would write something about how artificial intelligence would catch on as a way of thinking about the mind. But I got interested in something else altogether—how even the earliest personal computers were completely changing how children and everyday people were thinking about their minds. I heard people say things like, “Excuse me, I need to de-bug my thoughts” or “Don’t interrupt me. I need to clear my buffer.” They were talking about their minds being machines. I could see that the computer was becoming an object of intimate daily life that was going to change everything about the way we thought.
People at MIT said, “Don’t do that. There’s nothing there. You’ll never get tenure.” I got a lot of resistance from the engineers, because they thought the computer was just a tool—garbage in, garbage out—and that there was no story there. I just persisted. I don’t want to just say that I was right; though, of course, I was right. But what was most interesting to me was that the people who developed the computer did not really anticipate the giant change in culture that they were bringing with them.
JS: Do you think learning about what your father had done to you made you more concerned about the way scientists work?
ST: Looking at values and ethics is not usually part of a scientist’s job. There are lots of scientists who do consider values in their work, though. This is not a kind of indictment of science or individual scientists. But there can be a kind of tunnel vision there, for sure.
I’ll give you an example. I would teach a seminar to my engineering colleagues about my work interviewing children on their use of computers, and I would say to the audience, “Here’s a child who says, when she programs a computer, ‘It’s like putting a little piece of my mind in the computer, and I come to see myself differently.’” And I would argue that programming this machine was changing her way of thinking about herself, giving her more feelings of control over her life. Now, no one said that I was wrong, but they would say that it was irrelevant. Nobody ever said my transcripts weren’t real or I hadn’t done the work. They said, “That’s not what the computer is about.”
This just shows that if you stay within the engineering culture, you will not ask some of the most important questions that technology brings us. For example, if you look at Facebook, you see how it has brought us to a crisis of democracy, privacy, and intimacy. If your data—what you do and say and whom you affiliate with—is being scraped up, manipulated by a private corporation, and sold, you’re being manipulated. Facebook’s business practices have us living in a different world. Yet, people say, “Facebook is just a technology company.”
We have to apply ethical, moral, and psychological questions to technology companies. That’s really what my work is about and has been from the very beginning. Now, more and more people see how important this is—so, I don’t feel alone in that sense.
JS: You encountered sexism at the university but didn’t challenge it at the time. What lesson do you take away from that experience?
ST: One of my favorite stories in the book involves Steve Jobs coming to MIT at a time when I was doing work that was very relevant to his. He’d understood that the computer needs to be user-friendly in this very tactile way; so, we had a similar insight about the computer as a potentially emotionally evocative object in people’s daily lives.
But when he came to MIT after having invented the Apple 2, I wasn’t invited to any meetings and seminars with him. Even though I was already an MIT professor, I was asked to make a dinner for him—a vegetarian dinner, to be precise. I said yes, and I invited over all of these famous MIT professors to my apartment for dinner. Steve Jobs came in, looked at my vegetarian meal, and said, “This isn’t my kind of vegetarian,” and walked out.
The point of the story is that, at the time, it didn’t even occur to me that I wasn’t being asked to join the conversation. It took 30 more years for me to say to myself, I should have been invited. That’s because I’d come from Harvard, where there wasn’t even a single female tenured professor. So, sexism was familiar to me, and I didn’t question it—even though I’d begun to question the values of the engineering culture.
This story illustrates that, to stop sexism, you need to make the familiar unfamiliar. It helps to talk to other people and to ask, What’s wrong with this picture?
That’s what’s currently happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. Black men have been pulled over and beaten up for a long time; policemen have been violating their rights. So, why are we seeing the movement now? Because a familiar thing became unfamiliar enough to make people ask the right questions. It takes political will and personal courage, but you have to force yourself to have the necessary conversations.
JS: One of the chapters in your book is called “The Assault on Empathy.” How is empathy under assault?
ST: In the most direct way. If you’re at a table, and your phone is turned off and put face down on the table, and you’re in a conversation with another person, you will feel less of an empathic connection with that person. Even a phone turned off and face down—even one taken off the table, but still in your peripheral vision—undermines our capacity for empathy. The reason is that the presence of the phone reminds you of all the “elsewheres” you can be. A person in conversation just cannot compete with that.
To create empathy, ideally, you should to be looking at another’s face, paying attention to another person’s voice. Like, right now, I’m doing nothing else but listening to you. I’m not doing my email or stirring my soup. I’m focusing on your question and trying to give you an answer that’s responsive to the question you’re asking. You just cannot do that if you’re also doing your email or checking your texts.
One of the most heartbreaking elements in my research was when a young woman told me that, to really understand somebody, she needed to listen to them with full attention for seven minutes. But then, she said, “I can’t do it. I just interrupt, because I can’t stand listening to somebody for seven minutes without finding out what’s on my phone.” So that’s how empathy is undermined, which lessens our capacity for friendship.
JS: If we’re so drawn to our cell phones, what can be done to preserve our relationships?
ST: The solution is very simple. You take breaks. You have what I call “sacred time.” You don’t use your cell phone at meals, when you’re in conversations with family or friends, or if you’re alone in conversation with yourself. You can have some secret signal on your phone that people can use in an emergency—like, if someone is hospitalized. But, basically, the phone is not around.
It’s not because I’m anti-technology; I have many computers. And I don’t believe in counting your screen-time hours, either, because I love watching movies on my laptop, and I write my books on my computer. I don’t think it is helpful to count my hours at a screen. But you should take away screens at times when they’re interfering with your empathic communication with other people. If you have a few spaces in your home and times in your day that are sacred, where phones don’t come with you, I think that makes for a good start.
JS: How do you think the past year of pandemic life, of people communicating primarily via computers, may have affected us?
ST: I think its impacts could go in two directions.
On the one hand, a lot of people have discovered that they didn’t need to be physically present at all work meetings. In my case, I used to regularly travel to California to go to meetings that were pretty pro-forma—a dinner, lunch, or meeting where a report was read and hands went up or down. Now, I know that those meetings didn’t have to happen in person. That was jet fuel that didn’t need to be spent. I’m not saying that personal face-to face networking isn’t wonderful. But we can learn to be wiser about the energy (both fuel and personal) costs of this kind of travel.
On the other hand, we’ve missed the full embrace of other humans. We are going to want to be together. I’ve missed my students; I’ve really missed my colleagues. So, there will likely be some struggle over how we are going to go back to the office and how much time we will spend there. We just did a survey at MIT, and most of the staff do not want to come back to work full-time. They’ve done a great job supporting faculty from home, and the faculty are not complaining, either.
So, the question is, What is the place of work and how much is it a community? Pundits may be looking for a simple solution. But I think they’re going to be wrong, because the solution will be different for different organizations. It will depend on the organization’s needs for community. What used to be obvious will now be a conversation.
I think this is going to be a very good thing for institutions that let these conversations happen. If we listen to one another, we may learn how to enhance creativity and productivity and authentic relationships in the workplace.