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07/06/2021 10:00:57 AM


Empathy Diaries


By Robin Jacobson, Library & Literary Programs Director

If you catch yourself or see your child obsessively checking devices for texts or emails, or living much of life online, M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle has some advice. Fortunately, it is not “get rid of the phone!” This renowned expert on digital culture will visit via Zoom on Sunday, October 3, at 4:30pm. Register here.

Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at M.I.T., as well as the founding director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self. A licensed clinical psychologist, she pioneered the study of what she calls the “inner history” of technology – how technology changes not only what we do, but who we are and the nature of our relationships.

Turkle’s latest book, The Empathy Diaries, a vivid and moving memoir, reveals the roots of her humanistic approach to technology; it follows her bestseller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, and multiple other acclaimed books on people and computers.

Secrets in Jewish Brooklyn

As Empathy Diaries recounts, Sherry Turkle spent her early years in a close-knit Jewish world in Brooklyn with four adults who adored her – her mother, aunt, and grandparents. They were thrilled by her success in school and enthusiastically supported her interests with their limited funds.

It was a childhood awash with love, but also with secrets. Sherry’s parents divorced when she was an infant, and her mother, Harriet, rarely mentioned Sherry’s mysteriously absent father. When Harriet later remarried and had two additional children, she pretended her second husband, Milton Turkle (who eventually adopted Sherry) was the biological father of all three children. There were also secrets about money and health, including Harriet’s bouts with cancer.

Exploring Empathy

Turkle arrived at M.I.T. in 1976 at the start of the digital revolution. A just-minted Harvard Ph.D. in psychology and sociology, she began researching the psychosocial impact of computers. She writes that she had a personal interest in investigating “empathy as the defining characteristic of the human.”

Developing empathic skills had been essential for Turkle to understand her mother, who spoke in half-truths and coded language. Turkle was disturbed to see some scientists put empathy aside to single-mindedly focus on a specific research question.

The most dramatic example was her own father, Charlie Zimmerman. After her mother died, Turkle tracked him down, and discovered why Harriet had left him – Charlie had secretly subjected Sherry, as an infant, to experiments on attention deprivation. As Charlie described these chilling experiments, Turkle was appalled by his insensitivity to the needs of his baby daughter. This episode and others, Turkle says, heightened her commitment to her research, especially when investigations revealed that people immersed in digital culture increasingly treat others like objects, rather than fellow human beings.

Reclaiming Conversation reports on Turkle’s extensive field work examining the social and psychological effects of overreliance on texts, social media, email, and other digital communication. For both children and adults, she found that using screens to replace real-world interactions adversely affects relationships, creativity, and productivity. Fortunately, these adverse effects can be reversed if families, schools, and workplaces prioritize face-to-face conversations.

Turkle is not anti-technology; she embraces technology and all its gifts. Her message is that we should use technology purposefully. She fears that children who interact primarily with devices will fail to grow into emotionally intelligent, empathetic adults. She worries that adults’ personal and work relationships will wither if left online. This has ramifications beyond individuals. As President Biden has said, “empathy is the fuel of democracy.” Turkle agrees; she believes that empathetic citizens, who listen to and respect others, help democracy flourish.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784