In the spring of 1977, when Sherry Turkle was a junior professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Steve Jobs came to visit. While touring the campus and meeting with her colleagues, Turkle cleaned her apartment and worried about the dinner menu she’d arranged to host.
It took nearly 50 years after she wrote her memoir, The Empathy Diaries, to realize how angry this incident made her. She recorded how technology affects our lives early in her career, but was not asked to join her peers as they spent the day with the co-founder of Apple.
“Why not me?” she said in a video interview last month. It took her decades to get to this question, and it reflects her desire to turn the ethnographer’s gaze inward and examine herself as she studied her subjects for so long. That’s central to her new book, she said: “Here’s the practical application of what it means to have a conversation with yourself.”
72-year-old Turkle is very talkative. In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, she argues that talking to one another, an old-fashioned voice-to-voice exchange, is a powerful antidote to screen life. As a licensed clinical psychologist with a joint PhD in psychology and sociology at Harvard, she studies what our relationship with technology says about us, what we lack in our lives, and what we imagine technology can deliver.
[ Read Dwight Garner’s review of “The Empathy Diaries.” ]
Her daughter, Rebecca Sherman, said she and her friends occasionally became the subjects of her mother’s wandering inquiries. For example, when is it considered acceptable to look at your phone while eating? It was Sherman, 29, and her friends who explained the “rule of three” to Turkle: as long as at least three other people were involved in the conversation, it was okay to (temporarily) disappear onto a screen.
The Empathy Diaries, published March 2 by Penguin Press, traces Turkle’s rise from a working class in Brooklyn to a full-time professor at MIT. For the first few years of her life, she lived with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment. Aunt and grandparents. She slept on a cot between her grandparents’ single beds. Her father was almost completely absent.
[ “The Empathy Diaries” is one of our most anticipated titles of March. See the full list. ]
Her family could not afford tickets to the holy days in the local synagogue. Instead, they dressed and greeted their neighbors on the temple steps, making sure that they would attend services elsewhere. But they recognized Turkle’s intelligence and did not ask her to help with the housework. They preferred to sit and read. Years later, when she received a Radcliffe scholarship, her grandfather was present.
Turkle also writes about the relationships that shaped her. One of them was with her stepfather Milton Turkle, whose arrival disrupted Turkle’s early life and whose name her mother ordered her to take as her own – and never told her classmates or younger siblings that she was born to someone’s daughter was otherwise. Her own father was seldom spoken of, his name was taboo.
“I became an outsider who could see that things weren’t always what they seemed because I wasn’t always what I seemed,” said Turkle.
As Turkle began publishing and gaining recognition, she was asked personal questions, the kind of questions she had asked her subjects. But she turned pale. Years after her mother’s death, she still bore her mother’s secret, the secret of her real name. When she was in public she insisted that the personal was forbidden and that she would only comment on her work, although one of the arguments that enliven her work is that thinking and feeling are inextricably linked, work and that engulfed the person behind the work. She remembers that moment well: she was shut down when asked who she really was.
“That really started my journey and the arc of my beginning this conversation with myself,” she said.
But Turkle has long been interested in memoirs, and she teaches a class on the subject at MIT. She was impressed that scientists, engineers and designers often presented their work in purely intellectual terms when, in conversation, “they are enthusiastic about their life, passionate about their childhood, passionate about a stone that they found on the beach and that they used to Thought, “she said. “Everything about my research when I started interviewing scientists showed that their life’s work was illuminated by the objects, the people, the relationships that brought them to their work.”
Part of her motivation for teaching the course was to get her students to see their work and life as connected. And she specifically set out to unite the two strands as she sat down to write her own memoir.
In her book, Turkle describes how she was denied tenure at MIT, a decision she struggled and successfully reversed. She can laugh about it now (“What does a good woman have to do to get a job here?”), But she felt shaped by the experience.
Your almost 50-year-old colleague Kenneth Manning remembers the episode well. Turkle was “brilliant and creative,” he said, but “she brought a whole new approach to looking at computer culture and had a psychoanalytic background. People didn’t quite understand that. “When he threw her a party to celebrate her term in office, some colleagues didn’t attend, he said.
Turkle now acts as something of an “internal critic” as she imagines her colleagues could see her, writing about technology and her dissatisfaction at an institution where technology is part of the name. “As your work has become more critical of the digital, there are certainly many elements at MIT that are dissatisfied with it,” said David Thorburn, MIT professor of literature
The title of her new book reflects one of Turkle’s concerns. As we disappear onto the screen in our lives, spending less time in reflective solitude, and less time in real conversations with others, empathy, as Turkle sees it, is one of the victims. The word she defines as “the ability not only to put yourself in someone else’s place but also to put yourself in someone else’s problem” is not just a concern of Turkle, it’s a kind of specialty: she became even called as a one-woman emergency empathy team at a school where teachers had noticed that with the proliferation of screens, their students seemed less and less able to put themselves into another perspective.
One of Turkle’s hopes for this special moment is that the pandemic has given us insight into each other’s problems and vulnerabilities in ways we may not have had as much access to before. During the first few months of the lockdown, Turkle moved their MIT classes to Zoom. “You could see where everyone lived,” she said. “It started a conversation about the differences in our situations. Something that hides a ‘college experience’. “
In many ways, Turkle believes the pandemic is a “time limit,” as writer and anthropologist Victor Turner puts it, a time when we are “between and between,” a disaster with a built-in opportunity to reinvent ourselves. “In these border periods there are these opportunities for change,” she said. “I think we are living at a time, both in our social lives and in dealing with our technology, when we are willing to think about very different behaviors.”
Turkle isn’t against technology. She “proudly” watches TV a lot and loves to write on her extra small MacBook in a way that they no longer do. But it resists the lure of internet-enabled rabbit holes. “I am so aware of the screen manipulation that I am, and I am so uninterested in talking to Alexa and Siri,” she said.
She has spent most of the past year at her Provincetown, Massachusetts home, so it’s inevitable that Henry David Thoreau will show up. The naturalist and philosopher once walked the 25 mile long beach that connected Provincetown with the tip of Cape Cod.
“You know, Thoreau, his big cause wasn’t about being alone,” said Turkle. “His big thing was: I want to live consciously. I think technology gives us the opportunity to live consciously. “