Welcome back to THE ART OF ASKING EVERYTHING podcast.!!!! We're now releasing a podcast as an official THING every month or so....instead of weekly. And I really hope you tune in and enjoy them.
You can listen to the podcast simply by clicking "play" in this post, or you can get it anywhere podcasts are available. Just look for "The Art of Asking Eveerything" or use this handy linktree.
Also, before I slam into this podcast....I wanna thank you all for your comments on yesterday's philosophical voiceramble question about delusion. I loved reading all your thoughts....and I responded to a bunch of the comments, so go back and give the post a read if you haven't or you commented, and again, I wish Patreon's commenting system was a little handier and more conversational, but that's a problem for next month, when we hopefully finally crank up the discord.
Sherry Turkle is this week's podcast guest.
Sherry Turkle just wrote a memoir.
(photo: Blake Fitch)
Sherry Turkle's father performed experiments on her as a baby.
Her mother forced her to live a strange kind of double life; Sherry had to hide the truth of her last name and real identity from her step-siblings, and the world at large.
Her mom was also diagnosed with cancer when Sherry was a little girl, and hid the truth from her daughter until the cancer took her life when Sherry was in college.
Sherry has been....through a lot.
And now here we are, she's at the top of her game at MIT, in her fifth decade of studying technology and its effect on the human soul.
She's also a psychologist, and she's spent her life doing the work, as we say.
But she's only just put all the pieces together for the public in her new memoir, and surprise: she's realized that a big piece of her life's work is about trying to understand human empathy.
Her memoir - "The Empathy Diaries" - is out now and just got a rave review in the New York Times.
When I first started this podcast, two years ago, no lie, Sherry Turkle was one of my numero uno fantasy guests.
Sherry has been studying the impact of tech and social media (robots! AI! smartphones! facebook!) on The Human Soul since she graduated Radcliffe and started working at MIT back in the seventies.
I've been called "The Rock N Roll Queen of the Internet".
I've also been the loneliest person on the Internet.
I've sometimes been the most hated person on the Internet.
There have been times when I wish I'd never met the internet, and times when I wish the internet was all there was.
And I've spent my adult life trying to untangle what it MEANS to be sitting here with this phone in my hands. Is it making me closer to people? Further from people? Less alone? Really? More alone? Maybe? I WANT TO UNDERSTAND.
I have always wanted to grasp, really deeply GET, how the internet is changing our hearts and our lives. For better or worse.
So no big surprise that I’ve been a big admirer of Sherry Turkle since reading her book Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (2011)....which I remember seeing for sale at a Harvard book store and thinking
"I obviously need this book in my life":
and then came Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015):
Fast forward to now.
Sherry just published this memoir - "The Empathy Diaries". It's about her difficult emotional childhood and her journey through the male-dominated world of tech and MIT, and it’s.....a game-changer.
I used it as an great excuse to finally reach out to her for this interview, and I was honored and thrilled when she said yes. I met Sherry briefly back around 2012, after first reading "Alone Together" and getting my little brain blown. The ideas screamed at me off the page, and I knew she lived in Cambridge - or nearby - because she worked at MIT. She and I had a really good talk about twitter, about priorities, about life, about men.
At the time, I was living in a rental house in Harvard Square. I was living there because Anthony was dying of cancer.
There's a whole passage in "The Art of Asking" that I wrote shortly after meeting Sherry about the day my kickstarter hit the one million dollar mark. If you've read the book, you may remember this story. I was sitting in a coffeeshop with Anthony, my Best Friend Who Was Going to Die, and I was trying to explain to him why it was so important that I keep refreshing my phone, even though he and I were supposed to be enjoying unhurried time together. I needed to tweet.
I watched him watch my value system devolve in real time.
BUT I HAVE TO TWEET WHEN MY KICKSTARTER HITS A MILLION DOLLARS, I remember trying to explain to him.
He leaned against his cane, amused at my priorities. He knew me so well.
Then he died.
I cannot tell you how many times I've tried to live between these two worlds: the world of flesh and blood relationships, and the world of my online relationships. I am still not convinced that chucking our phones in the ocean is the solution. But I do know that this brand-new technology is sideswiping our ability to empathize. I see it. I feel it.
As I've grown older, I have gotten more wary of phones at tables, phones taking precedence over live conversation, screens in social situations. I've been so aware of Ash's five-year-old eyes scanning the world of adults, with our faces and hands prioritizing screens over the flesh people in the room. Often prioritizing their phones over him. Sherry's research backs it all up. Sherry has been studying this stuff since the 70s and waving the red flag that social media, screens and lack of direct conversation are slowly but surely eroding our empathy.Phones are depressing us and making us anxious.
I am still guilty of prioritizing the screen over the people. I do it. We all do it. Don't we?
But I'm always trying to fail better, to create better habits, and I'm trying to align and befriend people who have my values and are able to leave their phones in a basket at the door when we cook and dine.
I find myself having less and less tolerance for people who prioritize their scrolling over un-adulterated friendship time. Listening time. Building Empathy time.
So that's one conversation....it's a critical one, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
But then there's Sherry's STORY.
Her life. And how it all fits together.
Reading Sherry's memoir felt disorienting at first; I'm used to Sherry's research-based academic work where she does studies. There are "subjects", there are studies, there are statistics. Her new book is not that.
She is the subject. This whole world is the subject.
Her new book is deeply and painfully personal, and therefore, well, WAY DARKER. And oooh, it's good. It's so good. It starts a little slow, but give it a second.
I took reams of notes as I wrote it.
Here are some of my personal weeping moments as I read:
"In listening to my father coolly describe the experiments he did on me as a young child, I experienced something I had already begun exploring in my research: how science and technology can make us forget what we know about life."
"For years afterward, I tried to learn a way of being that would make me at ease in the world without blaming myself for what I didn’t know along the way. How to hold a fork. How to write an academic paper. How to order in a restaurant. My second goal was to find a way for my family to participate without feeling diminished."
"Growing up, I was part of my family but felt that something was off. Silence about my father and my name was taken for granted, but it wasn’t right. So I viewed everything that was there with special attention. I had to go rooting around in musty cupboards to figure out who I might be.
Since the rules never seemed natural, I believed things could be another way. I developed an outsider’s clarity. I carried it with me beyond childhood. I was a stranger at Radcliffe, certainly. And in France. I grew into a braver woman, developing strengths through a life lived more as a visitor than as someone who feels at home.
I learned that loneliness is not fatal. I found solitude, the kind of being alone that allows you to discover your own company."
This is a passage she writes about not getting tenure at MIT, and fighting back...and then getting tenure:
“I was not admired for my defiance.
Women who are dispensed with and come back to make trouble are not likable, even when they win on their merits. And instead of feeling proud that I had stood up for myself, I felt ashamed that I had been forced to do so. I exiled myself. I attended departmental meetings, taught my courses, did my research, and immersed myself in my students’ writing. I chose to stay off the larger MIT stage.
We experience our lives as segmented until, in a moment of crisis or decision, things start to come together. So even when I got MIT’s imprimatur, I never had a sense of belonging. Real daughters don’t have to argue their case before a jury. Real daughters don’t get legal- istic letters that tell them to be gone and that they then need to re- verse by power of their wits. Nor, it crossed my mind, do real daughters have to hire detectives to track down fathers who have disappeared for decades. This is not a good way to think about success at work. Or about belonging to a community of peers. But it was how I felt.”
Please write "I was not admired for my defiance" on my grave.
And then there's this bit. Oh my god. This bit.
She's made a dinner for her husand at the time, Seymour, who's a heavywiegh mathmetician. They are supposed to be entertaining Marvin Minksy, another famous AI and computer science dude. Seymour doesn't show up for dinner. He phones in with some flimsy excuse. He doesn't apologize. Sherry sits down to eat the meal with Marvin, sans husband, and Marvin tells her how lucky she is to be married to a genius like Seymour.
"Marvin and Seymour made a world where intellect was valued more highly than empathy, a good conversation more highly than common courtesy.
Seymour was being as rude to Marvin as he was to me. Marvin was sharing his code: To be interesting, Seymour did not have to be kind. He had to be brilliant.
I knew that the two men saw each other as lifelong friends. But that evening, as we ate in silence, this friendship seemed oddly transactional. And since the transaction was about computational ideas, it made sense that I seemed to have nothing to offer Marvin.
I had a moment during that dinner when I felt competitive and thought, Well, I could try to say something brilliant about Freud or Proust or someone else on my Chicago Great Books list, but then I fell back. I wonder if I really believed that I could come up with something brilliant enough, something Marvin level. Also, I was angry (but at who?) because I was there not just for the privilege of conversation but for love and consideration. And I wanted to be Marvin’s friend, not just a brainy purveyor of conversation.
I rejected the game."
Put "I rejected the game" on my fucking grave. Ok?
I think you're gonna love this podcast.
When Sherry read this passage of the book, by my request, I literally wept.
I've been at that table so, so many times. We all have.
Here's some stills from our zoom call, which we recorded for the podcast. I was in Auckland, Sherry was in Provincetown, Massachusetts:
Sherry predicted that excessive use of technology would erode empathy before home computers were a thing, let alone smartphones.
She argued that loneliness and solitude - both essential to developing meaningful human connections - had become spaces to be filled, and tech fills them.
The space in our heads reserved for empathy is now full of TikTok videos and spurious news stories.
I recently doom-scrolled my way through an article in The Atlantic called The Dangers of Distracted Parenting; I read the part about an economist who realized that smartphone service roll outs correlated with a rise in children’s injuries and proved it.
I feel this while parenting; I feel the danger. I try to ride the waves of what I need to do on my phone. I feel like a constantly fail.
Sherry has been tracking and studying all this since the dawn of time. (Or, y'know, the 70s.)
Sherry in her "Nancy Drew roadster" at Radcliffe graduation, Cambridge, June 1970
I thought this would be a tech heavy conversation, but the themes remained way LARGER, and the constant refrain kept sounding: the cost of keeping your mouth shut....and regretting it.
Those times when the edges of appropriate behavior start to fray and you could have called it out....but you didn’t.
When you had something valid to contribute to a conversation....but unspoken rules and conventions weighed too heavy and your mouth obeyed them.
It’s happened to me. When you listen to the podcast you’ll hear Sherry read an extract from her new book The Empathy Diaries and I’m, like, weeping by the end of it.
Her experience of insecurity in the face of Important Entitled Men was so relatable to me, I could barely hold it together.
I don't think I've ever heard someone clarify so succinctly what it feels like to be sitting at a table with a ton of Important Entitled Men who laugh heartily, prioritizing the World Of Great Ideas over human empathy, over human compassion, over the here and now. Over the children in the room. Over the hearts. Over the actual humanity.
Her stories about her first marriage and the acceptance of bad behavior will strike a chord for many women.
Many will cringe with painful recognition when they hear her trying to grapple with the voices within toxic, hyper-academic culture that keep reminding her "But You Are Very Fortunate Because Your Husband Has A Great Mind So Just Deal With His Insensitive And Abusive Behavior, You Lucky, Lucky, Little Girl"
We have been seeing this blown apart in the past few years, with the carpet getting ripped up left and right:
Wherever tech, ideas and men dominate: empathy gets thrown under the bus. Profit comes first. Results come first. Reputations of powerful men come first. Humanity and compassion come last.
I would love for you to share your own war stories from this department.....I know you have them - we all do - and sharing is weirdly cathartic....as you’ll hear.
I'm reading all the comments.
I also just made a thread on theshadowbox.net for patrons-only to keep the discussion going over there, if you wanna:
....see you over there.
THE PODCAST ITSELF - HOW TO LISTEN:
The audio for all of the podcast episodes are embedded on my website, including today's episode: http://amandapalmer.net/podcast
go here, select the podcast venue of your choice (i.e. apple podcasts), and click on the most recent episode.
and it's FREE, and AD-FREE!
(photo by Peter Urban)
Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist. Professor Turkle writes on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. She is an expert on culture and therapy, mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics.
Her newest book, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Penguin Press, March 2021), ties together her personal story with her groundbreaking research on technology, empathy, and ethics. Her previous book, the New York Times bestseller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, October 2015), investigates how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity.
Previous works include four other books about evolving relationships in digital culture (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit; Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet; and Simulation and Its Discontents, and one book about the history of psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution. Turkle has also edited several collections on how we use objects to think with, particularly in the development of ideas about science. These include Evocative Objects: Things We Think With; Falling for Science: Objects in Mind; and The Inner History of Devices.
Sherry with her daughter Rebecca, September 1991
The Art of Asking Everything
Sherry Turkle: Is Technology Killing Our Hearts?
Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
Sherry studies psychoanalysis and human-technology interaction. In books such as, “The Second Self,” “Life on the Screen,” and “Alone Together,” Sherry focuses on the psychology of human relationships with technology.
Her latest book is an autobiography called, "The Empathy Diaries." In it, Sherry reflects on growing up in Brooklyn and Rockaway, New York, navigating academia as a woman in the 1960’s and 70’s, and reconnecting with her estranged father as an adult.
We talked about being difficult women, how Marvin Minsky hates Bambi, defiance in thought, vulnerability in tech, how brilliant ideas launder bad behavior, and radical humility.
Here's "The Empathy Diaries"
Watch her TED Talk, “Connected, but alone?” https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_connected_but_alone
Follow Sherry on Twitter and IG @STurkle
For even more.....visit sherryturkle.mit.edu
THE EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
We've attached a pdf of the transcript of the podcast the patreon post. To view it, you can download it by visiting this patreon post on the web, if you ain't there already. (it's a hyperlink at the very bottom of the post with a little paper clip attachment symbol next to it).
THANK YOU, as usual, TO ALL YOU PATRONS, FOR SUPPORTING THIS PODCAST.
This whole undertaking would not be possible, in this manner, without patronage.
YOU make it possible for this podcast to have no ads, no sponsors, no censorship, no bullshit, we are just the media, doing what we do.
I love you all.
------THE NEVER-ENDING AS ALWAYS---------
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