MIT prof Sheryl Turkle has been studying what we all know from experience. Everywhere we go, at least in the western world, people are tippy-tapping devices, and paying little attention to the people surrounding them.

As she tells it here:

What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk? I’ve looked at families, friendships and romance. I’ve studied schools, universities and workplaces. When college students explain to me how dividing their attention plays out in the dining hall, some refer to a “rule of three.” In a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.

Could that be part of the reason universities have become no-free-speech zones? 

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

There is a dark side too: How easy is open-ended and spontaneous conversation when everyone fears being accused of bigotry for even being seen reading a book?

Memories; Fifty years ago, during a period in which there was an apparent (possibly not real) Nazi scare in Canada, I was a fifteen-year-old whose father had been in the Royal Air Force.

Knowing that Winston Churchill’s political decisions had been much affected by reading Hitler’s biography, Mein Kampf, I decided to try reading it myself. The librarian wanted to know why I wanted to read the book. But once reassured that I had only intellectual interests, there was no trouble. The English language version certainly testified to the author being a dangerous nut, but no trouble came to me just from reading the book.

Maybe it’s not just about the Internet; it could be about the society too?  

The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

It worked well once, and could again.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...