When I was putting together the 4th edition of Emerging, Sherry Turkle’s “Empathy Diaries,” the introduction to her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, seemed like a perfect reading to help students think about the impact of digital technologies and social media on conversation and the ability to connect. She argues that we’ve replaced conversation with connection and have suffered as a result, suggesting that screens have usurped the time and space needed for open-ended, deep, empathetic conversation. Her argument made so much intuitive sense. At the time.
Then the pandemic came.
I start my morning with a walk. It’s the only time I’ll see other human beings, from a socially distanced six feet away. I get to work at home and have a WebEx brainstorming meeting as we put together ideas for teaching our writing class online in a compressed six week semester. A colleague calls me and asks me about working on a grant from the NEH to support humanities workers in the time of COVID. Later, we have a college leadership WebEx meeting. There’s as much info being shared in the chat window as in the meeting itself. When I finally shut down my computer, putting my work laptop away to mark the transition to home, I check on my friends through Facebook, noting that many are still having their unemployment claims denied by the state of Florida. I laugh at a music teacher’s song about teaching in the pandemic. I cry again at a virtual choir’s rendition of “You Will Be Found.” Somehow that starts me down a rabbit hole on YouTube and I end up learning how to play cups. Later, I see a group of friends in a Zoom social. Later still, I do some virtual dating with a long FaceTime chat before bed.
Turkle’s argument seems to make sense when there are options beyond the screen. But what I’ve found is that the conversations and the connections I’ve had virtually have kept me sane these past six weeks, and counting.
It strikes me then that students’ experience during the pandemic might offer useful traction to respond to Turkle. How have they experienced the screen in isolation? How have they invited their families, trapped together, into their screen lives? If time and space are preconditions for conversation, can events like quarantine force us to have the time and the space to engage in conversation through the same screens that often serve as our escape?
We are in completely new times, where nothing is certain and things seem to change almost every day. We must release the illusion that when the pandemic is over we will return to the lives we knew. They’ve been inalterably changed, for good and for bad. Is it possible that part of that change is new appreciation for deep, sustaining connections—on the screen as much as in person?