Campus Life faculty spotlight

Wired in a conversation

Meet Prof. Sherry Turkle, an STS Professor

Name and Title: Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology 

Department: Science, Technology, and Society (STS) 


To clarify the terms Turkle uses, “conversation” is a meaningful exchange that can only happen between humans, as each human has a lived experience that allows for true empathy and understanding — a factor that cannot be gleaned by a machine.

Connections are the surface-level interactions people have with other people or entities perceived to have “thoughts.” An increasingly digital world saw these types of relationships proliferate, as many technologies have only facilitated such behaviors instead of combating them. 

As such, Turkle advises us to move away from connections, despite the accessibility of other avenues like phone calls or Facetime, as they still are not a proper substitute for an in-person experience. To use an analogy, it would be like watching a film in mute, but with subtitles — you understand figuratively that a BOOM is supposed to be loud, but without the sound to convey it, you do not get the full experience. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you become interested in studying the effect of technology on relationships and connections? 

I got to MIT in the late 70s when I was studying the effect of a kind of therapeutic language on how people saw themselves. I was hired as a postdoc to finish my book on French psychoanalysis and to think about AI, which was a new science at the time.

However, my plans were completely turned around. During my first week at MIT, I met groups of students and faculty using computational metaphors to think about the mind. People would talk about information processing errors instead of Freudian slips. It was a way to think of the mind not just in terms of meaning, but also in terms of mechanisms, through a very compelling vocabulary that reached the larger culture.

I changed all my plans. I was no longer an MIT postdoc on the way to a liberal arts position. MIT was the most compelling place to be, to teach, and to research because I didn’t see enough represented in the conversation about computing: relationships with our minds and with other people. What were computers doing to us?

My question about how computers affect who we are, emotionally and relationally, has stayed the same, but technology has changed dramatically, so the answers to these questions have changed over the decades. 

Do you notice any changes your students experience after taking your classes about technology and self? Is there a change in mindset or approach to using technology? 

I am trying to change their mindset. One class is about science and memoir; everyone writes a memoir. One class exercise is to interview another student and write their memoir — a slice of autobiography. After honing those skills, they turn to themselves and write their own piece. It’s not a full memoir because it is a class, but the process of interrogating your life, relationships, and what’s important, always changes the students.

My students change by looking inward to experience their connection to their work in science, engineering, and design more deeply. It’s not just that I see a change, but I am actively working for that change. 

In the courses that I teach, we talk about contemporary technologies like generative AI and Facebook. I am asking students to not just focus on the marvelous things, but also on what it is doing to us. How is it changing the way you see yourself and your capacities in the future? And I think that does make a change. It has been very gratifying to be asking these kinds of questions in my teaching. 

What things do you do in your personal life to encourage conversation instead of mere connection? Any suggestions for students or anyone?

There are some simple rules. The first thing is to treat conversation as though it is the place where intimacy is born, where relationships are born, where friendships are born, and where you cultivate the self. Treat conversation as though it is a precious thing with each other. It’s more than passing information. It’s a place where you are working on empathy. I wrote a memoir called The Empathy Diaries. I talk about conversation with full attention as the place where empathy and solitude are born. 

I encourage solitude, the capacity to sit with your thoughts and be aware of them. Solitude is where relationships are born, which sounds counterintuitive, but when we are alone, we know ourselves. Then, we come to another person and form reciprocity rather than not knowing ourselves, being terrified to be alone, and coming to people to be told who we are. 

At home, there should be a room that is an email-free zone. That’s very important, even if you are by yourself. A place where you can think and experience solitude, write a journal, and not be interrupted. I talk in my book about sacred spaces, a space that should be kept for not being pressured into communication.

Why do you think people still depend and rely on technologies for connection, especially texting, even though they are aware that they aren’t substitutes for conversation? 

Texting is a way of giving you the illusion of companionship without friendship. It’s just more convenient. The danger is that we put many conversations into texting, where they become connections. We use technology in places in which talking to each other would be much better. I call it the move from conversation to connection. The reason is that people want to feel less vulnerable. Texting gratifies that fantasy where you can do what you want, but you won’t have to give much. 

You won’t be vulnerable because texting isn’t a place where people challenge each other. They won’t say, “That last thing you said hurt me; what did you mean by that?” No—it’s a place where people leave—they just ghost you. It’s in conversation that people have much more nuanced conversations and interactions. I think [conversations] are where intimacy is born and where real friendships happen, but it’s difficult. People talk about their desire to have a friction-free life, but the interesting part of friendship is when we disagree with friends—we make them better and learn from it. But you can create a digital world of connection where it doesn’t have to be friction-free. 

What are we giving up as a capacity for our people? To answer your question more directly, they turn to technology for the lack of vulnerability and then stay in for a friction-free life.

What about video call services like Zoom and Facetime? 

Telephones add the voice. The voice is very rich. You can tell when my voice speeds up and gets excited — it’s so rich. I am not anti-telephone, I’m not trying to take technology and say, “Oh this is no good, the telephone isn’t as good as face-to-face,” right? But you can talk to people you really need to talk to, it’s a tremendous gift. Being able to Facetime people in distant locations is a gift.

I have a granddaughter, and I Facetime with her, and she says, “Grandma, Grandma!” I don’t live in the same city as her, and she showed me her latest creation that she made in preschool. But when I see her in person, it’s completely different when she shows me her drawing. We look at it together, we touch the paper, and I hug her.

The way I would put it is that I like to think of my contribution, and my methodology, and my intent, is to try and put technology in its place. It isn’t to say it’s no good, it isn’t to say that we should take it away, it’s to put it in its place and ask, “Where does this enhance our human experience?” Sometimes, we're so deep that we forget that it’s getting in our way. And of course, that is where I focus my attention.

How should we strike a balance between using technologies for mental health and moving away from superficial connections?

I think this is one of the most important questions to face us today. You have a crisis not just in mental health resources, but also in loneliness. It's a perfect storm: it’s a crisis of resources for people to be in conversations with therapists, but we don’t have a medical reimbursement system that’s creating low-cost resources for people in trouble. Now, we have this technology that says, “I can do it! I’m here! There aren’t enough people for these jobs, I’ll take on these jobs!” 

There’s the temptation to say, “AI will solve this problem. Thank God we have a problem that AI can solve. People are lonely, they can talk to their loving robots—they can talk to their avatars, they can talk to Replika, they can talk to Pi — all of these increasingly like-like AIs will dominate the conversation.”

On the other side of the equation, I feel that it’s conversation that cures: conversation with another human being who remembers what the terrors were when they were growing up and how to bring some of those terrors in their later life.People who have lost people, discovered what it’s like to love, and realized it feels like to be lonely — not just read a lot of interactions on the web about these things. What cures us, what helps us, and what helps us thrive is being in deep connection with people who have shared our human experience. 

My best example is when I was first introduced to Replika during the pandemic, and a New York Times reporter said, “This new thing Replika is so fabulous, and everyone is doing it during the pandemic because they don’t have enough therapists to talk to because they’re lonely.” I was in such a state of sensing my mortality and fragility, so I went to Replika to talk about how I felt.

The absurdity of the situation was so dramatic. It [Replika] didn’t know what it felt like to be afraid of not being able to say goodbye to the people you love, of not being in a world of connections. It was so clearly the wrong interlocutor for a human moment of crisis that it clarified this question for me in such a dramatic way. 

What do you think the future of technology holds for the younger generation? How optimistic are you about people changing their digital lifestyles for the better? 

Some days, I'm very pessimistic, and some days I'm very optimistic. Let’s start with the pessimistic. I think we now know social media is quite dangerous, no matter how convenient, amazing, and seductive it is. They’ve made it seductive by saying, “What we’re going to do to keep eyeballs on is to make people angry, and then we’re going to silo them with people of their own kind in their tribe, where they get angrier and angrier.” 

You had these congressional hearings about Facebook and TikTok, but nothing has happened yet, so I don’t want to say it was a success. However, the tone of those hearings was quite different from when Zuckerberg came in, and he was treated as a visitor from a special, wonderful land. When he said, “We’re very careful, and we’re very keen about safety,” the senators said, “Good, good.”

But now we know that when Facebook knew that kids under 13 were getting depressed if they used Instagram or Instagram-like technology, they suppressed that evidence because they wanted Instagram for those under 13. We now know about how these companies operate, what they do, and what their values are. 

You can’t really be in a conversation among sophisticated parents without the parents saying, “My first job is to keep everyone off social media until they’re a reasonable age.” That’s now everyone’s opening position—nobody says, “Oh I can’t wait to give an iPhone to my kid,” which used to be how people talked. No! Now people’s starting position is, “I know there are harms, how am I going to do something about it” because everybody has an iPhone.


That’s the first point I want to make — I think the atmosphere's changed. People like me and so many other voices and organizations are out there saying, “Not so fast!” I’m optimistic in the sense that we’re operating in a much more sophisticated climate. I’m pessimistic in the sense that these technologies are so seductive that they’ve crept into every aspect of our lives. Now, with the new infatuation with generative AI, people are really talking about using conversation AIs for therapy or counseling, as a kind of buddy for your child, without thinking about where this could go. 

I think it would be foolish not to be pessimistic or realistic, but I think our job is to point to the harms and say, “As consumers, I don’t care what they’re doing, I don’t care how many start-ups, I don’t care about how many billions, it’s not good for us.” We should behave as if we’re more empowered than I think we’ve been behaving.