Sherry Turkle and I first bond over Karl Rove — not via our mutual loathing of his no-holds barred Republican politics, but our intoxication with his old-school manners.
A couple of years ago, Turkle, Rove and I all found ourselves speaking at a conference on the cultural impacts of technology at the University of Chicago. Rove, George W Bush’s campaign adviser and Svengali — evil genius or genius, depending on your politics — spoke about conservative political strategy in the age of digital media. Turkle, an MIT professor and clinical psychologist who studies how people relate to technology, was there as one of the pre-eminent social critics of the computer age.
The three of us spent a fair bit of time being shuttled around on buses and sitting together at meals, during which time I couldn’t help but notice Rove’s manners. He helped random pensioners get their coffee, thanked every busboy and bellman, and pulled out dinner chairs for the ladies. I knew the latter wasn’t politically correct, but being on the far side of 50 and Midwestern, I appreciated the genteel gestures. So did Turkle. At one point, after Rove opened (yet another) door for the two of us, I turned to see what her reaction was. She was already looking at me for the same. We didn’t have to speak to know that we’d both been utterly and unwillingly seduced by the man who helped pioneer today’s toxic politics. Both of us burst into laughter.
We are smiling again today as we remember this over a classic New York brunch of bagels, lox (smoked salmon, ideally accompanied with a “schmear” of cream cheese), rugelach pastries and coffee — me in Brooklyn and Turkle at her house a couple of hours from Boston.
“He put us in our chairs!” she exclaims, leaning towards the monitor and talking with her hands. “He insinuated us into our chairs!” I laugh, almost choking on my cream cheese. Why was this such an amazing moment for us both, I ask?
“Well, there were two parts to it,” says Turkle, looking skyward thoughtfully, lox poised en route to mouth. “The first was that I experienced it, and I could acknowledge it. I realised that I’m an honest woman . . . Karl Rove certainly isn’t one of my heroes, and yet here was a man of great courtesy, treating me like a gentleman. I recognised that I was still part of the culture that appreciated that and appreciated him for giving me that pleasure.”
And the second part? “Well, it’s that I knew that you were experiencing the same thing. And I thought, that’s very interesting, and life is very complicated for men and women.”
They certainly have been for Turkle, who has enjoyed a rich and at times rocky career as a scholar of “the intimate ethnography of contemporary life”, as she puts it. Her work is both broad and deep, ranging from early-career explorations of how the French discovered Freud during the student protests of the late 1960s, to the study of how children interact emotionally with computers and how humans are changed by technology. She was one of the first people to think about whether too much interaction with digital devices might make us feel lonely rather than connected, and whether a “frictionless” world was actually a better one.
Her best-selling book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, first published in 1984, challenged the engineering mindset of blanket techno-optimism and asked whether we should take more control of the new world of machines. “This conversation that I was having back then has been long deferred. I’m so glad that more people are finally having it.”
Turkle is the rare sort of academic who appears on the covers of magazines, and she’s certainly one of MIT’s most famous professors. But she believes she was initially turned down for tenure at MIT, despite her enormous audience, precisely because she was challenging the status quo. “Who wants a critic? [The Second Self] was a super brilliant book, but nobody said, ‘thank God we finally have a sociological perspective on ourselves.’ ”
MIT and other top technical universities are filled with people who tend to be better at maths than feelings (in her book she writes about an early student who told her his relationship needed to be “debugged”). Turkle’s work is all about why the engineering mindset is too linear, and why we need empathy to augment the algorithms.
She recounts a departmental demonstration she once saw about the internet of things, in which sensors and mobile devices allowed academics to get from class to Starbucks “without meeting anybody they’d ever had a fight with — no ex-wife, no department chair. It was like in Harry Potter, you know, the Marauder’s Map.” Everyone in the room loved it. “I thought, ‘who said human relationships are better if you never have troubles?’”
Relationship trouble, and in particular the emotional legacy of a difficult father, is a core topic in her new memoir, The Empathy Diaries, which links her upbringing as the gifted daughter of Russian immigrant Jews in postwar Brooklyn to the woman she became: a hyper-vigilant, acute observer of human behaviour. Our menu today is actually inspired by the heavy delicatessen fare beloved of her maternal grandfather, Robert Bonowitz, who helped raise her.
“I really wanted [this Lunch] to capture some of him,” she says. “I had a grandfather who deeply loved me but gave me a very troubling model of what would be pleasing to a man, which was performance and deference. Always be the best but defer to me. I think that’s something that is perhaps resonant for a lot of women. They try to be the best, but then there is a private space in which, really, they’re taught that their role is to be deferential.”
Indeed. I sip my coffee and think about how many of the most successful women I know have had difficult and demanding fathers (or father figures) in their lives. Since we are doing this lunch remotely and I doubt the quality of the bagels in Provincetown, I’ve had Zabar’s, the famous Upper West Side emporium for all things smoked and savoury, FedEx a basket of six sesame bagels, cream cheese, kosher smoked salmon, and a pound of fresh baked chocolate rugelach. Turkle will have enough to carb-load the extended family, including the daughter and grandchild she longs to see post quarantine, but I figure she can always freeze the leftovers. I replicate the menu from my local bagel bakery.
Turkle’s New York is the city of Woody Allen’s Radio Days — a place where clans of aspirational refugees in cramped apartments vacation in tiny beach bungalows in Queens and dream of bigger things for their children (in her book, the family jokes about their one-bedroom rental as the “winter palace” and their Rockaway bungalow as the “summer palace”). It is the city that gave birth to people such as Janet Yellen and Bernie Sanders and Carl Icahn. Hers is not the Brooklyn of lifestyle boutiques and craft beer, but of malted milkshakes and dock workers and Benny Goodman and weekend walks in Prospect Park, where I now play tennis near the flat in which Turkle grew up.
I feel bad that I wasn’t able to meet her on the Coney Island boardwalk with hot bagels, but she assures me “everything is delicious,” though I notice she’s really only nibbling. Turkle is wearing a crisp white shirt; we had consulted before our lunch about whether she should wear a new Balenciaga jacket, which seemed to her more FT-appropriate. But I suggested she go with whatever was most comfortable and she has, adding statement jewellery and a really great blow dry.
Her mother Harriet had a lot of style, too. In the memoir, Turkle chronicles how her tall, striking, but deeply insecure mother left her father, a narcissistic school teacher who had fantasies about becoming a published scientist. He had secretly conducted experiments inspired by psychologist BF Skinner on baby Sherry, in which he deprived her of attention and touch for hours on end as she cried. Her mother left him when she found out and hid the truth about what happened from her daughter; Turkle only discovered what had happened much later in life. Adopted by her mother’s second husband and forced to take his name, she grew up longing for her real father, and “feeling like an unacceptable thing” within this new blended family. She resented her mother for having taken her away from her biological father, even as she remained in the dark about how she did so to protect her daughter.
Human relationships are at the heart of much of Turkle’s work, with books such as Alone Together (2011) and Reclaiming Conversation (2015) looking at how they might suffer as our usage of technology increases. Many of Turkle’s insights about empathy come from trying to understand her mother, a loving but flawed individual who had a loose relationship with the truth. At one point, she gave the young Sherry a hat she claimed to have knitted, even though it had clearly come from the local department store.
Turkle realised while writing her memoir that this happened on the very day that her mother discovered that she had breast cancer, another secret she never shared. “She knew she wasn’t going to tell me, that she wasn’t going to tell anybody, that she was going to just hide this and that she would never share it with me and maybe she was going to die. And she wanted to just, on her way home, to just go into the five and dime and get me something.”
The pair have the kind of intense but somewhat dysfunctional relationship that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in an immigrant family or had a dynamic, thwarted mother. The scene in which Turkle dispels her own working-class insecurity during her Harvard college interview by telling her mother, who wants desperately “to share in this moment of aspiration”, that she has forgotten to take out one of her hair clips only after seeing the Dean, triggers so much referred guilt in me that I call my own mother after reading it.
“The places in the book that I was cruel to my mother were very difficult to write,” Turkle tells me — far more so than the recounting of her love affair and failed marriage with famed mathematician and AI expert Seymour Papert, another brilliant, difficult man in Turkle’s life. “He was wonderful and terrible and impossible, but he provided a kind of deep intellectual company that was very important to me.”
Turkle met Papert at MIT, where he was teaching children to program in a software code he’d designed. She wanted to know about children’s emotional attachment to the machines. He became a mentor and a teacher, someone with whom to discuss the big questions in their field: “Why would we want to build machines of such profound intelligence that they would take over from us? Would we want to upload our brains to giant computers when we die and achieve immortality?”
The couple eventually married and became stars in Boston’s intellectual universe. They visited Xerox PARC together and entertained Steve Jobs, who had just launched the Apple II computer (Turkle was charged with cooking dinner for Jobs). But like Turkle’s mother, Papert was also someone who held back secrets — a daughter he left, a former wife, and eventually other lovers. He was often late and inconsiderate, living “in a world where intellect was valued more highly than empathy, a good conversation more highly than common courtesy.”
Turkle decided she needed more, and the marriage ended. As we finish our bagel brunch, she observes: “It was only when I was writing the galleys of the book, that I thought to myself, ‘hold on a second — why wasn’t I given a meeting with Steve Jobs?’ I was studying why computers were seductive and addictive and why they shouldn’t be big boxes and why they should be sensuous things. Why wasn’t I given a meeting to talk about it with Steve Jobs? Why was I asked to make him fucking dinner?” Difficult fathers, difficult husbands. Papert did do something quite empathetic, though. “He gave me a little keychain with ruby slippers on them and he said, what you lack is confidence, you lack courage. So, go to Emerald City and get some courage.”
She did, continuing to raise difficult and unpopular questions about technology with the most powerful people in the field, until the rest of the world caught up. Despite all the hoopla over AI, Turkle is sceptical about how far the technology has come towards actual human interaction. She was recently asked by the New York Times to comment on a conversational chatbot that had become popular during quarantine — it was social and could supposedly keep you company. “I go online, I make an avatar, I say I want to have some conversations about what I’m anxious about. Can you do that? ‘Absolutely,’ the bot says. ‘You can talk to me about anything.’ So I say, I want to talk about loneliness. That’s my main problem. What do you think about that? And she says, ‘It’s warm and fuzzy.’ And I say, thank you very much, and I logged out.”
It’s interesting, she says, as we wrap up our own chat, “how only desperately lonely people are open to dictatorship. That’s the greatest political danger — our loneliness. How we can’t tolerate solitude, and the internet has made that worse. If you can’t be alone, if you can’t tolerate solitude, if you don’t know who you are, then the minute you see somebody else, you’re trying to get them to tell you who you are. You are looking to other people to be who you need them to be, so you don’t see them at all. You can’t see them. So, that’s the end of empathy.”
I tell her that I feel like her memoir makes that point, not explicitly, but in the story of her relationships, and her attempt to understand her flawed family on their own terms. Yes, she says, that’s right. “The empathic position is not, ‘I know how you feel’, but rather, ‘I don’t know how you
feel.’” Would that more people thought this way, both online and off.
Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist
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