Coming Out Of the Pandemic With Fresh Eyes

Arianna Huffington interviews Sherry Turkle.

Lithiumphoto/ Shutterstock
Lithiumphoto/ Shutterstock

The Empathy Diaries. A turn to memoir. How would you summarize the premise of your new book?

I thought I had a story to tell about the relationship between one’s life and one’s work passions.

I started my life with a secret identity. My real last name (my father’s name from my mother’s first marriage) couldn’t be said aloud. My mother, wanting to hide an early marriage and divorce, insisted that I lie about it until I was an adolescent and finally adopted by my stepfather. Yet, with multiple identities, I had to find myself. 

My secret was a burden. Just by uttering my real name in the wrong place, I could blow apart my mother’s cover. So learned to pass, but I always felt like a fraud. 

My secret also made me an outsider. This was a burden, but looking back, I learned to use it as a kind of superpower.  Standing on the outside, I could see things that other people couldn’t. I would learn that the normal suppresses what doesn’t fit. I was primed to see things that didn’t fit because I was of them. 

My path, by necessity lonely, taught me that the capacity for solitude is essential for empathy. If you can be content with yourself and know yourself, when you engage with others, you are not trying to turn them into what you need them to be. Solitude is where empathy is born. In the psychoanalytic tradition, one says: “If you don’t teach your children to be lonely, they’ll only know how to be alone.” 

After my work took me to MIT, I became worried that technology got in the way of people’s capacity for solitude and self-reflection and thus for empathic connection. Tracing down that story became my life’s work. 

I was reflecting on all of this, writing my memoir, when the pandemic began. It has been an opportunity for us all to become both outsiders to our own country and to have a forced experience with solitude.

How we come out of this, how we use this to make our country and ourselves stronger is now our greatest test. 

Taking you up on this last point. You are saying that the pandemic has given us an opportunity to see our country with fresh eyes. What do you mean by that? 

Our society has just gone through a searing experience seeing our country with fresh eyes. In isolation, we were all watching different streaming services, but we were all watching. We saw the experience of Black people anew. We food lines across the country and an insurrection at the Capitol. For many people, that didn’t fit with their story of America. 

Being an outsider, what anthropologists call dépaysement, literally decountrifying,  was my life’s opportunity. And perhaps it is now for our country.  Our challenge is to reflect as if we were outsiders on the disruption that has shaken this country – and to view America honestly, creatively, and empathically – so we don’t squander but capitalize on the moment before us.

This means that we won’t just return to the “old normal” – substituting screens for personal engagement, tolerating the same injustices and disparities that burnt through our blindness this year –  but that we come out having learned deliberateness. To see things anew. To fix what’s broken.

We have relished our Zoom weddings and Seders, staff meetings and classes; technology has helped us keep our economy and spirits going.  But our loss of direct human contact has shown us the very real limitations of life projected on the screen. We’ll need to act with deliberateness to balance the new remote ways that we will want to include in our new lives in “after-times” while finally enjoying the full embrace of the human which so many of us craved in solitude. 

How real do you think the risk of regress is? 

I fear regress.  In particular, in how we relate to technology. 

I have lived through several generations of our coming to terms with the human and social impact of the computer. But at every pass, the terms slip back to “We are going to have this new technology, what can we do to make its effects more tolerable? How can we change people to be more technology-ready, more open to adjusting to it?” 

So, new studies of robot pets or chatbots that do psychotherapy, don’t ask, “Why on earth would you want to discuss personal relationships with a thing that doesn’t know a thing about being a person? ”The studies don’t ask about what people need but about how well the people are accommodating to the chatbot.  What tweaks to the chatbot might help people want it more? 

There is never a clear way forward. Social media, my career-long object of study, played a key but complex role during the pandemic. It allowed the world to watch a real-time lynching, real-time police brutality, and a national and now international movement for social justice. But at the same time, Facebook publishes a steady stream of lies about public health, political protest, and the facts of every matter, scrapes and sells our data, and defends its right to publish falsehoods. 

Coming out of the pandemic, what are the lessons you’ve learned, and how should the pandemic inform how all of us confront the future?

In the time before the pandemic, so many people said they had no time to talk, really talk, but all the time in the world, day and night, to connect. Technology was, too, an assault on empathy, which suffered when connection was substituted for conversation. Empathy requires the capacity for solitude. For many, however, solitude had become a problem that technology should solve — with a chat or a text or an email.

The pandemic put us in a new situation. Now, to connect, we had to use the technology that had kept us apart. We had been alone together. Now we were together alone

Several things happened that were notable. We used technology with greater creativity. It is easy to make fun of our Zoom connections, but new forms of intimacy and creativity emerged.  During pandemic days, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his favorite songs for the cello in his dining room and heard Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare’s sonnets from his porch. I felt as though I was watching both performances and intimate solitary practices. That they seemed like both made them all the more compelling. One day, Stewart said that he was going to skip Sonnet 20 because he didn’t like how Shakespeare talked about women in it. If this had been the actor Stewart in a performance of the sonnets, I think that in his actor role, he would have performed Sonnet 20. But on his porch, he was also reading these poems as himself, for himself, and said that he didn’t want to be upset or perhaps upset others in his audience. It was a liminal moment. So much of the pandemic was like that.  

The importance of face-to-face encounters is a common theme in your work.  How do you see that importance shifting in this world we live in now, where Zoom meetings and Skype lunches are increasingly a way of life?

Before Covid, we had begun to rethink our technological enthusiasms, particularly our relationship to phones and social media. More and more families were deciding to put technology aside for a day or a week, to go on vacations without devices. The corporate world had come to recognize the costs of attentional disarray. Business meetings were increasingly likely to be held without phones. And in my world, college teaching, it was now the norm rather than the exception for instructors to ask students to put away their phones before class. Then, the pandemic hit, and technology became our only way of connecting. Compelled to live more than ever on our screens, we became grateful for virtual connection. 

Teaching, theater, politics, family life, the pursuit of love, all of these were re-imagined on Zoom. 

In the online experience of the pandemic, two things happened that were only superficially at odds: We constructed a more valuable remote experience. And we longed for the full embrace of the human. So now that there is talk of life after confinement, we’re not sure of the terms of our reengagement.  We don’t want to go back to what we had before when we travelled long distances to be with each other “face to face,” but then looked down from each other to look at our phones and tablets. When it is safe to get together, perhaps we’ll travel to see each other less, but insist on more from each other when we arrive? At least we’re talking about it. 

One thing seems certain. We can break out of framing the question of “What next?” as being “for or against technology.” Working remotely allowed us to get a lot done, we saved energy, and we were able to spend more time with our families. But we also learned the value of the division between our personal and public lives. And when we worked at home, we missed the warmth and collegiality of time spent face-to-face with our colleagues and students and clients. Without in-person time, it was harder to collaborate and establish trust. We accomplished a lot on our screens; now we can move forward to more flexible organizations that use technology to enhance our creative potential. In education, as in work, personal life, and politics, we are in a position to act deliberately. 

I spent the pandemic on the beach that Thoreau walked, searching for how to live a life not of solitude but of intention. Or rather, he hoped to use a certain dose of solitude as a way to reach intention. That makes him a touchstone. What does that idea mean in this moment?  Don’t automatically walk into every situation with a device in hand. The presence of a phone already signals that your attention is divided, even if you don’t intend it to be. It will limit the conversation in at least two ways — how you listen and the kinds of conversation you’ll have. Do one thing at a time. We become less effective with every new task we multitask. Our brains crave the fast and unpredictable, the quick hit of the new. One thing at a time is key to productivity and creativity. Conversation is a human way to practice “unitasking.”

For years, we have known multitasking degrades performance — there have been so many studies. But few professionals practiced what they preached because work piled on demands. During the confinement of the pandemic, a substantial group of people, many of them influencers in their fields, had more control of their time. Their experience may mean that doing one thing at a time may finally get a real chance in business practice. It’s what our brains are meant to do. 

For so long, tutored by technology, we became reactive and transactional because this is what technology made easy. We asked a question and expected an immediate answer.  To make this work, we asked simpler questions. The pandemic gave us an unexpected, expanded space. Let’s hold that thought. Each of us needs to better learn how to use technology to set our own agenda and find our own pace. It’s where we can assert our control over conversations rather than allow technology to dictate their terms. One strategy is to give yourself permission to respond to any communication by saying “I’m thinking.” That sends at least two messages: I value reflection and I don’t let myself be rushed because technology can rush me.

During the pandemic, people were lonely, there was a rise in online therapy, even online therapy with computer programs, something you have spilt much ink arguing against. Thoughts? 

For many years I studied how we have arrived at a “robotic moment,” not because we made machines that can be our companions, but because we are willing to consider becoming theirs. During the pandemic, people reacted in complex ways to loneliness. And they became increasingly open to the idea that now or in the near future, machine companionship will be sufficient unto the day. People tell me that if a machine could give them the “feeling” of being intimately understood, that might be understanding enough. Or intimacy enough.

So, perhaps it was not surprising that about two months into the Covid confinement, a New York Times reporter called to talk to me about the growing popularity of conversational AI programs (commonly called “chatbots”) that declare themselves capable of friendship. During the pandemic, with everyone stuck at home, millions of people had downloaded one in particular, “Replika.” You go online, create an avatar, and give your Replika a name. Now, it is ready to serve as a constant companion, a therapist if you want one. This was the new AI, claiming to offer not only artificial intelligence but artificial intimacy. 

Artificial intimacy programs such as Replika sell themselves as empathy machines but have none to offer. How could they? They haven’t lived a human life. They don’t know what it is like to start out small and physically dependent, and grow up, now in charge of your life but with so many of the insecurities you knew as a child. If you want to talk about the issues that come up around love, separation, children, marriage, illness, aging, mourning, (or keeping a family secret), you’d do best to find a person. For that matter, if you want to share your fears about catching Covid, you’ll have more success talking with a human who was born and has a body. 

Our time of confinement had left us in a complex place. We were ready to open our hearts to a computer program. After a lonely day of remote encounters, why not chat with a nonjudgmental avatar? We were already at our screens. But at the same time, a life on Zoom had led us to revalue human presence. When we had all the time in the world to be with our machines, we missed each other. We suffered when our families and friends got sick alone, had babies alone, had too many dinners alone, and indeed died alone. Engineers: make a better Zoom. Make better tools for us to be together when alone. There is no need to compete with the empathy that defines what is unique about being a person.

Do you see any promising signs that this game-changing year may be in some way generative, or healthy for the community? Otherwise put, post-pandemic, do you see a new role for empathy in our public conversations? 

Absolutely. And crucially. We need to build spaces where we can talk to people who are new to us, where we can talk to people with whom we don’t agree. We know that conversations are limited by our prejudices as much as by our distractions. Political conversations on social media are best characterized by what we call a “spiral of silence.” People don’t want to post opinions that they fear their followers will disagree with. A technology that makes it possible to interact with everyone does not have everyone interacting. 

I remember interviewing a college junior, who said that she tried to obey a seven-minute rule, when it came to social interaction. She thought that it took seven minutes to see how any conversation was going to unfold. Her rule was that you have to let it unfold and not go to your phone before those seven minutes pass. If there is a lull in the conversation, you had to let it be. She said that she knew all this, but she rarely gave others this time. I’d like to think that post-pandemic, when we can get back together, we’ll give each other time. To listen to each other and also to listen to ourselves.  

I lived out the pandemic on David Thoreau’s beach. So many of the things he had to say about what we can learn from solitude have been helpful to me. For Thoreau, the place to start a conversation with another person or a conversation with himself was with a walk. He wrote about walking as a way to “shake off the village’ and rediscover his thoughts.  During Covid-times, many of us have escaped to walking to settle ourselves down. These days we have a new kind of village to shake off, our digital village, with its particular demands for performance and self-disclosure. “Dreams,” said Thoreau, “are the touchstones of our characters.” Allow yourself to go there. Our minds often work best when we daydream. When you return from reverie, you may be bringing back something deeply pertinent. Something that brings you not only to poetry but to resistance. Ours is a moment that demands resistance. Writing my memoir brought me to that.  

Did writing this memoir and your history with “othering” give you a different view or experience of the pandemic? 

Yes. In The Empathy Diaries I describe a period when I was living in Paris and working as a cleaning person in exchange for rent. My one call home in the fall was a desperate communication with my grandmother to ask how to clean windows if there was no Windex. My grandmother knew: You clean windows with ammonia and newspapers. I remember the fear of not knowing this, the fear that I would lose my room. I never had that kind of fear again.  The simple fear of not having a place to stay. Having had it helps me now. Because now, coming out of the pandemic, whether you can hear, really hear, people with that fear will mean whether we can go beyond hopes and prayers and well wishes for those whose lives have been destroyed to seeing ourselves in their place and feeling at one with them. 

It’s been hard for us to see each other. I describe in The Empathy Diaries how I learned that when it came to supporting the “normal,” blindness to all that it represses is part of the game. From the pandemic to the violent aftermath of the election, many are confronting an America they had not really seen. This is frightening but the stakes are high. We have a country, truly, to rebuild.

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. Her life’s work has been to study the human side of technology, what it does to us as people, to our relationships and our psyches. Her most recent book is The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Penguin, 2021). 

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