OPINION10 September 2012

Sherry Turkle on the culture of distraction


Sherry Turkle is no luddite, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor worries that technology is taking us to places we, as humans, don’t want to go.

We’d rather text than talk, she says – “We’re fearful of the give and take of conversation” – and we’ve developed a style of thinking about ourselves where “we don’t know our thoughts and feelings until we share them”.

“This way of being, when it plays out in work, poses significant challenges to collaboration, innovation, engagement and leadership,” she said in her opening keynote at Esomar’s Annual Congress in Atlanta today.

Turkle says we’re too busy communicating – via text, email and social media – to think and listen, and we’re too busy shutting down conversations that matter in order to meet the demands of digital communication.

“We live in a culture of distraction,” she said, pointing to the recent story of a 40-year-old women who fell off a pier while texting.

Several things in Turkle’s speech should sound alarm bells for market researchers. “We have created a communications culture that has decreased the time for us to sit and think undistracted,” she warned. Clearly, this has implications for the analysis stage of a research project, limiting the depth of insight researchers can get to.

And then there’s the pressure to do things quickly. Turkle says her research has shown that in order to get fast answers, organisations start to ask simpler questions. “We dumb down our communications even on the most important matters,” she says.

Beyond that are the implications for the way consumers use technology and how that affects a market researcher’s ability to get to know them.

“There are many different things people do online,” said Turkle, some of which are a form of self-presentation. “The FB profile is designed to project you in the best possible way. Online interactions are not the place for showing vulnerabilities. People don’t want to leave a digital trail of personal problems, failures and frustrations.”

But technology can have a disinhibiting effect, Turkle says. The fact that you are alone while emailing or Google-chatting, even though you are publishing what you are saying, can lead people to open up beyond what they might normally do in a social setting. In order to get to this point, though, you need to build relationships with individuals over time. Simply ask a stranger online to tell you about themselves, and they will present an idealised version of themselves, Turkle says.