As I read Sherry Turkle’s April 2012 article in The New York Times, “The Flight from Conversation,” I couldn’t help thinking about civic reflection. In the article, Turkle discusses our increasing dependence on technology and the difference between mobile connection and meaningful conversation. As Turkle explains: “Texting and email and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete.”
This sentiment reminded me of a conversation that I had at a meeting with a group of civic reflection facilitators the week prior. The conversation was about the importance of driving dialogue that is “unrehearsed,” of creating a space where people can voice thoughts and ideas that they didn’t expect to voice upon stepping into a room. One of the things I have always valued about civic reflection is that I can’t always present, as Turkle would put it, “the self I want to be.” A good question in a civic reflection discussion will wriggle under the surface of who I think I am and what I think I believe to get to who I really am and what I really think – sometimes providing clarity, other times providing what I like to think of as “productive confusion.”
But it is difficult to experience either profound clarity or productive confusion if we are constantly communicating through technology rather than face-to-face. As Turkle says in her article: “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications.” While I have spent a great deal of time thinking about participants who are resistant to civic reflection, reading this article made me think, for the first time, about civic reflection as an act of resistance: resistance to fast answers and easy fixes, to the “simpler questions” and “dumbed down communication” that Terkle describes.
Near the end of her article, Turkle notes that she believes “our flight from [face-to-face] conversation” could mean “diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection.” As she says: “These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective.” At the Center for Civic Reflection, we spend a lot of time “making the case” for civic reflection and reflective dialogue, trying to explain why taking the time to take a step back and question our values, identities, communities and commitments is worthwhile. And while Terkle certainly doesn’t investigate all of the reasons that civic reflection – or reflection at all – is important, her argument that meaningful face-to-face conversation has become both more scarce and more startling in a world where we have grown accustomed to connecting by email, texting, gchat, or phone is crucial to keep in mind. If sitting in a circle and talking face-to-face seems foreign to our partners and participants, then perhaps that’s because it is. And while it may take some adjusting, I firmly believe that civic reflection is a way for people in our technologically interconnected world to feel more connected again.
Read the full New York Times article here