EconTalk |
Sherry Turkle on Family, Artificial Intelligence, and the Empathy Diaries
Mar 15 2021

Empathy-Diaries-199x300.jpg Psychologist and author Sherry Turkle of MIT talks about her book, The Empathy Diaries, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The Empathy Diaries is a memoir about Turkle's secretive family and how that secrecy turned Turkle into an acute observer, skilled at revealing the story behind the story. She also chronicles the early days of artificial intelligence and the evolution of the computer. Topics in this conversation include the challenges of family, the role of technology in our lives, the limits of artificial intelligence, and the importance of Bambi.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


John D
Mar 17 2021 at 1:00am

While different, I enjoyed this episode. I approach a lot of podcasts as just an opportunity for me to eavesdrop on two people having a conversation. Let the conversation go where it goes. I’m a long time EconTalk listener. Thanks Russ for letting me listen in.

Mar 17 2021 at 12:11pm

Russ mentioned during the podcast that his father had an expression “love flows downhill” which I thought was very poignant to the conversation and incredibly wise.

Russ has mentioned his father in previous podcasts and I always found his dad’s advice and wisdom as applicable as it is interesting.  Would Russ be willing to do a podcast about his father/parents.  Much of who he is seems to rooted in his family and his upbringing, I would like to learn more about how he became the person he is today.

I’m just going to guess and say there are probably many EconTalk listeners who feel the same way.  Just a suggestions.  Thank you.

Erik N
Mar 17 2021 at 1:20pm

I really enjoyed this episode.  That said, as an engineer by education, I would argue that the importance of friction in social interaction does not stand in opposition to its role in science and engineering.  Certainly, there are special cases where it is important to reduce friction, but scientists and engineers not only accept but need friction in countless ways.  Think of tires, clutches, fasteners, just to name a few.  I’m amenable to the argument that science should respect humanity, but the argument is weakened when it is presented in a manner that doesn’t respect science.

Also, to the related discussion of distribution of vaccines, I’m as flummoxed as Mr. Roberts that the process of distribution wasn’t handed over to the most efficient logistics machines the world has ever seen.  I understand the need for oversight on something so vital and limited, but why try to remake this glorious wheel?

krishnan chittur
Mar 17 2021 at 1:58pm

You took the words out of my mouth (!) – I agree, in so many places we NEED friction – and you reminded us.  There is also this idea that if only we did this and that everything would have come out OK – like coordinating with social science types about the vaccine and distribution and so on.  It is almost as if history is forgotten – scientists/engineers are well aware that there is a need for rational thinking even in the social sciences but often find themselves at odds with the thinking.  Indeed if people recall BEFORE the vaccines were generally available, we had a bunch of voices about “equity” and such – about how some of the older people should NOT get the vaccine as to level the playing field as far as equity is concerned (look up Harald Schmidt) – I would say that IF the inventors/makers of the vaccine HAD organized with the social scientists earlier, we would have had an unmitigated disaster – far far worse than what we have watched and seen.

But yes, I did enjoy the podcast – both sad and also reminders of life in general – parenting and so on,

krishnan chittur
Mar 17 2021 at 2:56pm

The topic of parental/child conflict is interesting in that we remain surprised (?) at the fact that it exists ?  I realize there may have been specific reasons for the stories in this episode (the critical ones that were not talked about) – but are these unusual?  I realize not.

The parental/child conflict can be explained in many ways – and try as people have, there are no universal explanations.  Perhaps evolution in its wisdom (?) designed the conflict as a way for the child (and the parent) to grow up to deal with the world outside?  The child sharpens his/her teeth at home so when dealing with the “wild life” outside, he/she knows how to deal with that?  I could imagine that if there were NO conflicts of any kind at home, the child (and the parent) are probably unprepared for the world outside.  This is not to suggest that conflicts have to be made up – but that some conflict of some kind is inevitable and is perhaps necessary.  The story of why she was taken away from her father is certainly out there and not something to have, for sure.

Luke J
Mar 17 2021 at 7:53pm

This might  be Econtalk’s most personal episode yet. I tip my hat to Sherry Turkle for her courage.

Mar 18 2021 at 8:11pm

Enjoyed the conversation, an interesting change of pace.  Professor Terkle had some interesting points that I agreed with re: technology.  I am a high school teacher and the good news is that, while the students are somewhat addicted to their phones like crack, they also get bored of them.  Facebook is crack to me, but apparently no one under the age of 30 find it interesting.  I did find it frightening when I had my kids go around and say what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving, how many of them said their phones.


I found did find Professor Turkle’s repetitions to be quite odd.   Quite odd.  Maybe it was just her style of avoiding pauser words?  I really appreciated her book origin story involving the reporter and her triggered response.  I especially was touched by her gratitude to the reporter.

Also, Russ, I’m rather amused that you think that there are no classes about how to do conversation!  (In fairness, he did qualify with “that I am aware of“).  I don’t know how full your upcoming calendar is, but I would love for you to have Guy Sengstock or someone in the lineage of Marshall Rosenberg on your program.  Might be the next logical direction for where the podcast is going these days. (and I’m not complaining!)

Russ Roberts
Mar 19 2021 at 8:45am

When I said, “no classes in conversation” I meant as part of formal education–K-12 or college. You might think that learning how to talk to people–the art of conversation–might be a cornerstone of formal education. To my knowledge, it is rare or non-existent. I will check out the people you reference.

Nathan Warden
Mar 19 2021 at 12:37pm

Hi, Russ,

This statement regarding formal education in conversation struck me with a bit of a smirk, too. It immediately brought to mind the Socratic dialogues, and the teaching style that persisted for all of history since then until the progressive movement “reformed” education at the turn of the 20th century. It seems as if this somewhat lost art was just one of many lost to the segregation of education into classes and topics. The classical educators, one might presume, did not teach through conversation by accident, though it may be by accident that we lost the art.

As an aside, you might find it interesting that one company focused on classical (Christian, in this case) education found this element of conversation such a compelling part of the classical model that they went as far as to name the organization “Classical Conversations.”

My smirk reveals a somewhat uneasy defeatism that I hold. It seems somewhat exciting to be among the generations of people that appear to have abandoned humanity and conversation, while they stare at the sun rising over the horizon in the hope of the AI savior to appear with each new day. I’m not just uncomfortable with the optimism of these technocrats, and their rather strange brand of defeatism (let’s just sit here and wait for, as your guest aptly described it, the rapture of the coming of AI to host our souls in the cloud). I am also filled with the same sort of excitement one might expect to feel while watching trains collide.

Let’s not fail to continue pursuing truth, behaving nobly, living with virtue, and seeking after things that do not fade away, much like the sound of crashing that echoes in the forest, even if there’s no one around to experience it.

Mar 27 2021 at 10:06am

Loved this episode. One of the few econtalk guests I was not aware of prior to listening but I was completely hooked by her story and the lessons the episode taught. I went out and bought her book right after listening and am flying through it. Wonderful to be surprised like that (I’m nearly always disappointed by new books of non-fiction).

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 19, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 19, 2021, and my guest is Sherry Turkle. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Her latest book is The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir. She's also the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. I'm hoping our conversation today will center on empathy, conversation, self, whatever else comes up along the way.

There may be adult themes to our conversation, so a heads-up to parents listening with children.

Sherry, welcome to EconTalk.

Sherry Turkle: It's just a pleasure.


Russ Roberts: The Empathy Diaries, your memoir, is an incredibly powerful book about being a human being, about being a child, about aspiration. Why did you want to tell your personal story alongside your professional interest in empathy?

Sherry Turkle: Well, the theme of my work has always been that thought and feeling go together. I decided to turn the lens that I've been turning on other people and other stories on my own story. And, I felt that it was time in my career to look at what had driven me, how thought and feeling had come together in my life to produce the career and the meaningful career that had driven me. It was really a journey that was so meaningful to me, and I hope that it causes other people to try to ask of their work, 'What really brings me here? What really drives me? What is the meaning of why I'm doing what I'm doing?' And, that was why. It was just the time--it was the time to do that.

Russ Roberts: I think I'm using the word correctly: I think you're a cultural ethnographer in some dimension and you turned your professional skills from that career to your own life.

It's a heartbreaking book in many passages. It is an illuminating book in others. It's an incredible read. You mentioned how your mother divorced your birth father when you were young, and kept the two of you apart for reasons you eventually come to appreciate and talk about in the book. We won't talk about that here. Read the book if you want to find out more. It's a bit of a detective story.

But, you write something very powerful I wanted to ask you about. You said, 'Later I would come across the thought that an absent father makes everything seem possible and nothing seem safe. You have no name; you can be anyone. But, there's no guardrail, no backup, the reality that is implied in an interdiction.'

We had Michael Brendan Dougherty on the program a while back and he talked about his missing father from his life, who was Irish; and how he never absorbed because he was missing the culture that he might have had. And, I like to point out that I think, in the abstract, that's a blessing because then you could just choose the best culture. You don't have to be stuck with the one you were born with.

And, I think we have a romance about emotional freedom and cultural freedom that way in America and in modernity, that: we just write our own story. We don't have to be burdened by our traditions. But, you're arguing, and I think correctly, that when you live in that world--when you're unmoored in that way--you don't have a guardrail and a backup.

I'm curious what that means to you, that sense of not being safe. Because, I think when Michael Brendan Dougherty talked about the death of his mother, he said, 'I didn't have an Irish traditional mourning.' And, I thought, 'Well, yeah. But, that's--' I asked rhetorically, 'isn't that great? You can just choose the best one. You can choose Shiva like Jews do, or you can have something else from a different culture.' But, he didn't want that. He wanted his own culture--

Sherry Turkle: His. He wanted his.

Russ Roberts: that he had been deprived off. Why is that important to us as humans, and what did you mean by 'not safe'?

Sherry Turkle: Well, I think the first thing is to admit that there's no such thing, really, as the best one. Things that give you comfort is because it's your one. And, not having your one is the thing that you miss.

It turns out that readers of the book will find out that I didn't have the best birth father. But, by having the one that I had taken away from me meant that every Chanukah, that every birthday, I went and stood and waited for the postman, and nothing came. What a child who is waiting for the father who's disappeared has is the absence--not the knowledge that the guy is bad news. She just has the absence. And, it took me till I was 40--spoiler alert, little spoiler alert--to find out what in fact I had and why my mother hadn't wanted me to know what I had.

But, until then, I just had absence. And, that's in fact the sort of most toxic thing, because your mind is free to imagine infinite freedom, infinite possibility, infinite, infinite, but you sort of have nothing. That absence allows for--that quote about 'no guardrails' is like you're unmoored when an adolescent, when a child growing up needs that sense of mooring. And, my mother, who died when I was very young--without meaning to because she loved me with such depth--did me a disservice in not being able to have the conversation, the honest conversation of, 'Look, your father isn't around because I don't want him around, because he could do you some harm. But you have a father, but he could do some harm and we don't want him around,' as opposed to, 'He could be Prince Charming.' You know? It kind of--I feel that, particularly in that time, the idea--very misguided idea--that nothing--just disappearing people--was preferable to addressing the truth, was very much abroad and a very bad way to go with children. But, it was common.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and of course, that generation, especially coming from a culture that was slightly alien--being in a culture that was slightly alien to mainstream culture, Jewish culture, in your case, of course other people have a similar experience with their own culture--there was always a feeling of not fitting in exactly. It's certainly part of my family's history here in America. An unease, a desire to be "like everyone else," that wasn't possible. But, as a result of that, there's an immense amount of life that was put off to the side to be not talked--couldn't be talked about.

Sherry Turkle: Right.

Russ Roberts: In my case, I'm talking about my grandparents' generation, they hid all kind of things from each other, from their children--through a combination, I think, of good intentions, but also shame, fear, embarrassment, and that feeling of not being quite fitting into what they thought they wanted for their children. And as a result, I think--you certainly give the portrait of emotional damage that that wreaks. And it's very difficult. It's very harmful.

Sherry Turkle: One thing I do say, which is kind of the upside of the downside, or at least I tried to make it in my life the upside of the downside, is that: Because I knew that the story my family was telling about me--which is that I didn't have a father, that my mother remarried and that the new father was my father even though he wasn't my father, and I had to pretend he was my father--the reason, the fact that I knew that we were telling this version that wasn't true and that I was living this lie and pretending I had a name that wasn't my name, it made me realize that next to other stories that people were saying were true, there usually might be another story that was true. And it made me very aware of multiple realities going on.

I kind of became the Nancy Drew of my life and other people's lives, looking for the stories behind the story. You know, pulling myself out of the story that was being told to see if there was another story.

And there's a fancy word for this in anthropology, it's called depaysement--decountrifying, taking yourself out of the story to see if there's a fresh story that you can tell.

And, I say in the book that I turned this outsider status, which was so painful to me, into a kind of superpower because I taught myself the discipline of being an outsider to my own life to preserve my sanity--because I was lying every day about my name, about who I was, about who my father was. I mean, I was just lying all the time.

I turned it into a superpower because I adopted that attitude toward looking at the world and trying to sort of see the world with a little bit of a twist.

And I think that's again to the first question of how I became the ethnographer, how I became a social scientist, how I began to see things that other people couldn't see: I tried to turn that into a job. And I think I did. I think I did.


Russ Roberts: What you're talking about, for me when I think of these questions, it's the narrative that we tell ourselves about our own lives. And we want to fit into that narrative. We script a certain image of ourself. We then have events that we can't control that we then have to wedge into the plot. But, the kind of deception that you're talking about or--dishonesty is too cruel a word, but illusion is a better word--we all have it. We all have some level of illusion about who we really are.

But, in your case, there was this explicitly deceptive aspect of your childhood that kept you--I think, as the reader of your story--kept you from having an integrated self that perhaps a different childhood would have allowed. Which had its--as you said, it had some upsides. It forced you to be an incredibly acute observer of other people's narratives and other people's lives. The book is full of fascinating portraits of the people, both your family and professional people you've interacted with. We'll talk about some of those later.

But, that whole question of the narrative we tell ourselves seems to be an incredibly important part of our day-to-day life that we don't usually think about much.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, I became very skeptical about the narrative I told. Whenever I started to tell myself a story, I would always be, 'Well? What? Are you sure?' Ha, he, heh. I really became a sort of narrative skeptic, because I was very--I was Jacques Derrida before Jacques Derrida was telling Jacques Derrida.

It was interesting because one of the very fun things about the book is it begins with a chapter called--in French, it's a nom du père, the Name-of-the-Father. And of course, that was the first topic that I studied, was a French psychoanalyst whose big theory was The Name-of-the-Father. But, that was incredible, because I began doing that without being consciously aware that The Name-of-the-Father was the very thing that I wasn't allowed to have.

It was, like, total proof to the unconscious works, because the first thing I studied was a theorist who studies The Name-of-the-Father, the thing I wasn't allowed to have.

So, when I realized this was the case, I just cracked up. I mean, it was like: You don't need Freud to see which way the wind is blowing. I mean, it was really quite amazing.

But, in the course of doing the book, I came across many things like that where my work and my life were so interconnected.

You know, it was funny: as you were talking and I was thinking about why I wrote the book, an anecdote comes to mind, a story that is in The Empathy Diaries but maybe not, you know, highlighted enough: that there was an incident that actually got me started on the writing.

You know, I didn't start to put pen to paper at that point, but it is the, I would say, the origin of the book. Which was, in 1984, I wrote my first book on computer culture. I'd already written a book about Jacques [Lacon? inaudible 00:15:51]. But, this was my first book about computers and people and how computers change the way we think. And really did very well. I mean, it was like I was on Ms. Magazine's cover, I was Esquire's people under 40 who are changing the nation. I mean, it was a really hot book, because I was the only person writing about those kinds of things. So, I mean, to be modest, I mean that really was the truth. I mean, it was like sui generis. Not that many people were interested in the topic.

So, when I was on Esquire's 40 people under 40 who were changing the nation, they send a really brilliant, lovely psychiatrist to interview me. So, I can be on the cover of Esquire Magazine: they're going to do a little article about me.

So, the first thing--and to this point, I had kept my mother's secret. I had never told anybody that I was not--that she had been divorced, that I was not the daughter of her second husband, that my stepbrother and stepsister were not my biological, step-sister and -brother.

Russ Roberts: Sibling, yeah.

Sherry Turkle: That's what she wanted. I just--I gave her what she wanted. I just I gave her what she wanted. This was her greatest wish that nobody knows she had been divorced.

And so, when he comes in, this lovely man, I offer him coffee, we're in my office in MIT, and he says, 'There's nothing in the book, there's no thank you to your father. There's a lot about your mom. What did your dad do for a living? Talk to me a little bit about your dad. There's just no thank you or no--' And I look at him, and I, in the book in the second self, talk about the integration of thought and feeling, how thought and feeling need to be won, how that is my trademark contribution.

I say to him, 'You're not here to talk about my personal life. You're just here to talk about my intellectual achievement.'

I mean, I throw--I don't want to say a hissy fit, but let's say a hissy fit, to this perfectly nice man who is just trying to get a little bit of biographical information on me.

So, when he writes up what's supposed to be his puff piece about me as the wonderful thought-and-feeling psychiatrist person, psychologist lady, he writes, 'Well, I've got to say that for somebody who makes her claim to fame about interviewing people about their thoughts and feelings and how thought and feeling are one, she's very--if she has to wear a mask, you ask yourself--.'

I mean, he tries to be discreet that I'm a nut job. He really tries.

And I read that--which was totally fair. I mean, he could have really--if his assignment had not been: Write something nice about Sherry Turkle, she's on our cover. That was his job. But, I read that and I said, 'This has to stop.' And I called up my sister and brother and I told them the truth. I called up my stepfather and I said, 'This has to stop. I have to be able to speak the truth of who I am.' And that is where this book, the fact that I was going to talk about what holding a secret for a family meant, and what it had meant in my life, and how it had influenced my work, and what the lack of empathy and my own history had meant for my quest for empathy and my work: I was going to tell that story.

And, really, it took me over 30 years to tell that story, because it's not so easy to tell that story. It's not so easy to tell that story. This book was--I don't want to say 'written in blood' because that makes it all very dramatic. But, this book was very difficult to write, and I had to wait until I could write it without--and I think this is the virtue of this book and I'm very proud of it. I'm just telling my story. I'm not out to get anybody. I'm not out to hurt anybody. I'm not out for retribution. I'm not mad. I'm just telling my story.

And that took me a long time to achieve. But, that is the origin story that Esquire Magazine writer, I think his name was David Halperin, I owe him everything. I really owe him a lot, because that was the moment when I--I have a story to tell here. I have a story to tell here.

Russ Roberts: Not mentioning your dad was the dog that didn't bark and he was--

Sherry Turkle: Yes. Yes, exactly.

Russ Roberts: able[?] to hear that silence.

Sherry Turkle: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: Which is impressive.


Russ Roberts: I want to ask you one more thing about your personal--some of the personal things in the book, but then I want to open up the conversation to a broader set of topics on empathy and conversation generally. But, there's one moment in the book that is--I think every parent can appreciate this moment, and every child who grows up can appreciate the moment. You talk about a childhood that had a lot of taboos. You just discussed one of them. There were also issues you couldn't talk about. Anything that required money, because your mom was uneasy, the fact that she didn't have enough; and she couldn't send you to summer camp, so you couldn't even mention summer camp because you know it bothered her. And, she was afflicted by this, clearly.

And, you come along, and because of your gifts--your mind and the fact you're in America at a particular time--you're going to aspire to a very different life from that of your parents and grandparents. You end up going to Radcliffe as an undergrad; Harvard for a graduate degree. The world opens up to you.

While I was reading your book--you didn't mention it--but I couldn't help thinking of Great Expectations, by Dickens. One of my all time favorite novels where Pip, the main character, is going to have a chance to live in a different world than the world that his sister who is raising him and his uncle who are raising him. He ends up--one of my favorite scenes in the book, and it's phenomenal in the movie, too--is the scene, where effectively his father--it's his sister's husband, who has raised him, Joe Gargery--comes to visit him in his new digs where he's now aspiring to. He's got money now because of his great expectations. And he's very cruel to Joe; and he's ashamed of it. And he tells us so as the narrator. But, he is cruel to him when he does it--that cruelty, he's aware that it's cruel when he does it.

And you have a moment like that. It's heartbreaking. You say--you're talking about you go with your mother to interview for admission to Radcliffe and you say the following,

I suppose the interview went well. I was accepted to Radcliffe. But walking back to the hotel, in all of my insecurity, I caused my mother, who wanted nothing more than to share in this moment of aspiration and promise, the greatest pain. I told her that she had forgotten to take out one of her hair clips before seeing the dean. She could say nothing. I was accusing her of betraying me, of betraying us, of showing us to be who we were.

If in life you could get just one do over, that is the moment for which I'd want mine.

Of course, we all have moments--

Sherry Turkle: Just having you read that, I feel--I'm just sitting here blown back.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I've got goosebumps, because it was such a heartbreaking passage. Because we've all hurt our parents, sometimes knowingly, more often unknowingly, but often knowingly. We say things that--we want to hurt them. And we do that to our children at times, as well. We do it to our friends. It's an incredibly human moment that you shared. How'd you write that? How'd put that in there?

Sherry Turkle: Well, I think when I wrote this book, I decided that--The Empathy Diaries isn't supposed to be me showing that I'm so great, I'm empathic with other people; look at me, I'm empathic with my student. Look at Sherry Turkle: she can be empathic with her students. Look at Sherry Turkle, she can be empathic with a hacker. You know? I wanted people to be empathic with me. I wanted it to be a--that the book wouldn't do its work if I couldn't make a reader be empathic with me. The book isn't a show and tell of my empathy qualities. The book is my trying to write a book that can make you, that can evoke some empathy with me in my vulnerability.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The other thought I had with that passage--

Sherry Turkle: What?

Russ Roberts: The other thought I had with that passage, though, is: you don't say--I don't know if you've thought it--but it really makes your mother--it reminds me and should remind all of us of the courage of daily life. That was--

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, my mother was--

Russ Roberts: an incredibly hard thing for her to do, to go with her daughter to Radcliffe.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, my mother didn't deserve that.

Russ Roberts: But, not just because it was a dig and it made her embarrassed, but also because what she was doing to accompany you--

Sherry Turkle: Was so brave.

Russ Roberts: was so brave. She was--

Sherry Turkle: It was so brave. That's why--I mean, I've done a lot of bad things in my life. I mean, you have to say to yourself, 'Sherry Turkle, she's had a complicated life. She's raised a child. She's had a marriage with [inaudible 00:26:54] that crashed and burned. She's dealt with complex renovations. I'm sure she's been mean to contractors. I mean, she should know she's--'

Russ Roberts: A human being.

Sherry Turkle: She's a human being. Of everything she's done, this? Because my mother was so brave to be there. She was so out of her--I think this was her first trip out of Brooklyn. This was so brave. She had struggled so hard for this to happen. This cost her money. This cost her emotional capital. This was the highlight. And, I was so angry that she hadn't let me see my father--the thing I couldn't say to her--that I found a thing.

The moral of that--because I wasn't really mad about--because I was pretty cool about where we were from. I mean, I actually, is pretty cool and pretty proud about where we were from socioeconomically. I was not hung up that I didn't have, like, a big pedigree. I was really proud that I was, like, an unusual person to be going to Radcliffe. I didn't waste a lot of time on it. I mean, I quickly figured out the knives and forks. It took me about two years. There were a lot of knives and forks to figure out. I took my crash course at Saks Fifth Avenue to figure out, like, how to dress. I mean, I threw myself into it, and pretty soon I had the right haircut and had a dresser, too and knew to wear blue jeans and not other things. I did fine.

But, I was--if you don't talk about--and this is again where I think my emphasis on conversation comes. In my work, I wrote a book called Reclaiming Conversation, and I'm passionate about it. And I think it comes from these early conversations that my family would not have with me. If you don't have the necessary conversation with your child, your child is not going to be able to initiate easily that conversation with you, and sit you down and say, 'Mom, we're not talking about Dad. Let's. Because it really is interfering with our communication.' That's too much for a 16-year-old.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure.

Sherry Turkle: So, instead, she's going to say this thing that's going to haunt her for the rest of her life.

Russ Roberts: That reminds me of the phrase I quote now and then. It's a cliche, but I think it's important--

Sherry Turkle: I'm still upset.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, well, of course. Of course you are. You always will be. It's okay.

Sherry Turkle: Okay.

Russ Roberts: It is okay. We do those things, and I'm sure--the reason--my dad, who passed away almost a year ago to the day, liked to say that love flows downhill. Parents love their children more than the children love their parents. It's a biological/cultural reality. And, I'm sure your mom forgives you for that moment. I'm sure she wasn't happy about it, but I'm sure she forgives you because she's your mom.

Sherry Turkle: But, you know what? I don't think she understood where it came from. And that's the pity.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's probably true.

Sherry Turkle: That's the pity. I don't think she understood where it came from. And that's the conversation we were never able to have. And, that's the pity. Yes, I think she loved me because I think she was so confident in my love that--I think that she had a deep and abiding confidence in my love that sort of washed away the moment perhaps. But, I don't think she knew where that came from.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and although she helped put it in you. Not going to quote it because it's a unrated poem. But, listeners may check out the phrase, the poem, This be the Verse by Philip Lark. It's about what parents do to their children. It's a complicated relationship. The cliche I was going to mention though is that everyone is in a battle, so be kind, and it is hard to remember that sometimes as we go through life with our masks and our armor on. Obviously your book is a book of dropping the mask to some extent. Takes a different kind of courage than we're talking about of your mom's.

Sherry Turkle: When you asked how did I write it, I mean, I wrote it because I wrote this book to be true to my--I wrote this book in a spirit of telling the truth and the truth that I thought would be universal truths for other people, that other people could understand and I think that everybody does have something with a parent that they are so sorry, that they--

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Sherry Turkle: did. That I think it's also an example. I'm trained as a psychoanalyst, and people have things they repress because they're so painful that they repress them, they can't remember them, they can't be touched, they can't be remembered. I remember this, I didn't have to retrieve this from some--I have lived with this. It's not something that--I was not in some miasmic half-unconscious state when I said this. There was a cruelty here. There was a cruelty. There was something--I was not at peace with my beloved mother because I didn't know she was sick. I wasn't trying to be nice nicey with her. We had a very loving relationship. We went to the movies together, we cuddled together, we went shopping together, we shared intimate secrets together, but I was angry at her.

Russ Roberts: Of course.

Sherry Turkle: I could not express my anger. But, I was angry at her every day, because every day I had to write my name that wasn't my name.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and it's not--I think part of it is that leaving behind that we all do when we grow up. We leave behind our childhood and our parents and we forge our own identities or our narrative, our own sense of self, our own journey. Some of the cruelty I think we inflict on our parents is because we resent that they keep pulling on us. As a father of four who's got most mostly semi or fully grown kids now, it's hard to let them go. Of course, the more we pull on them, the more eager they are to take flight, and I think it's inevitable in those moments that there's a sense of self.

I mean, I think the incredible thing about--that desserts itself, I think there's an incredible part about being a human being, which is that you are your parents. You don't like to admit it, but as you get older you realize that you're a weird genetic and cultural extension of your parents. And, most of your life you spend it trying to escape that because you're not. 'I'm me, I am me.' But, you are not you. You are extended generations, culture, everything, and they're just--it's part of life.

Sherry Turkle: Well, that was also such a gift of the book, that I realized when I found out the truth that my mother had sort of saved me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's beautiful. Yeah.

Sherry Turkle: That was a gift of writing the book because I hadn't been aware of that.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's beautiful.


Russ Roberts: I want to shift gears though and talk about computers, which you spend a lot of time thinking about. Rodney Brooks was a guest on the program. And he--I think he is the person who taught me that Marvin Minsky coined the phrase 'suitcase word' for something that you can stuff a lot. I say that--I mention that a lot on this program, this concept of a 'suitcase word,' because so many things we talk about--I'm talking about something different, because I'm stuffing something different in it than you are. And I think it's a very important idea in thinking about how we converse.

But, Marvin Minsky, the coiner of that phrase I think, plays an interesting role in your book. I want to talk about a couple of things you talk about with respect to him. One is, you say, you quote a hacker, a computer nerd who told you, "Marvin Minsky wants to create a computer beautiful enough that a soul would want to live in it." That's an incredibly provocative sentence: "Marvin Minsky wants to create a computer beautiful enough that a soul would want to live in it." I don't think you thought that was a good goal, particularly. I'm curious, what you think about it now?

Sherry Turkle: Well, I think that--

Russ Roberts: And what did he have in mind? What was he thinking there?

Sherry Turkle: Well, he believed--this is a--I think that quote was important to me because I was trying to understand a culture--that believed that souls, the computers would be animated to the point that they would have animation and intelligence--

Russ Roberts: Consciousness.

Sherry Turkle: Consciousness, souls. And that they would be--I would say, 'Souls?' And, he would say, 'Yes, because the computers would be so complete, so beautiful in their essence, in their being and their aesthetics and their complexity,' that a soul would find them a place appropriate. So that I shouldn't be thinking of some garbage-in/garbage-out nonsense. I should be thinking of something so intricate and so built on a society theory of mind where there was no sort of clear simple rules and you couldn't--

Russ Roberts: It would have an emergent--it would have an emergent property, right?

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, an emergent intelligence. It would have an emergent. That it would be so beautiful that way that it would be appropriate to a soul. So, that quote from a student that I was teaching was kind of my guide post for thinking and having a--for empathy. It helped me with empathy: that when I was listening to students talk about the computers that they believed would have souls and be souls in the machine--that they weren't thinking about programs and lists and list-processing. I mean they were thinking about a whole different kind of machine.

And so, it was my--it was a window into a way of thinking about computation where these people were in a different way of thinking about a computer.

But, once I accepted that--and I did, that they were thinking about a whole different kind of computer--I still am stuck. And I remained stuck; and in my book I tell a story about going to see Bambi with Marvin Minsky. And he's arguing that Bambi should never be shown to children because it'll give children the idea that you need to be a living thing, and that children shouldn't be upset when their mothers die because in the future children will be bonding with machines and they shouldn't get upset if living things die because that's so yesterday and we're just going to be taken care of by, you know, robots.

And, I remember looking at him and saying, 'You don't want children seeing Bambi?'

And he says, 'No, because we're going to be taken care of by intelligent machines, and this just gives people the feeling that human caretakers are, like, better than robot minders who are going to be so much more better for us.'

And I remember thinking, 'I'm parting ways.' I part ways with the--I remember my daughter was born. Like, I bought six copies of Bambi just to make sure we had a lot in our house.

And, I part company because no matter how much complexity and society of mind and emergence this machine has, it doesn't have skin. It wasn't born. It doesn't know about growing up from vulnerability to not vulnerability.

It doesn't--I'm lonely, I'm afraid of COVID, and I want to get my first vaccine and I'm nervous about going out, and I'm triple masking; and I'm living on a beach alone.

What computer, no matter how much emergent intelligence it has, understands in its body that for a human being to live without touch is tough?

Even if it tells me the right things. Even if it knows to say, 'Yeah, Sherry, that's really tough. It's hard to live without human touch.' What does it care?

I part company with these guys, not because I don't think they can build something that can pretend to say something nice to me. I am sure they can build something they will pretend to say something nice to me.

I'm there on the gut--if you're worried about dying, if you're worried about getting COVID, if I can't touch my daughter's hand because she's so afraid of making me sick that she feels she has to see me from behind the glass barrier--I don't care what some smart computer has to say to me no matter how much it can pretend. I just know that this is not--this is just not what people in AI are concerned with. They're concerned as to whether they can pretend empathy and fool me into thinking that the thing has appropriate responses. And I really part company there. I just think it's, it's like--what's the point? There's so many good things for AI to do. So, many uses, so many great uses. Why this?


Russ Roberts: So, that's a deep question, actually. I know you meant it rhetorically, but I actually think about it a little bit. By the way, while you were talking and talking about the human experience, a line came to me that I don't think--I know I didn't think of it directly while I was reading your book, but it would be very appropriate. I think it's Thomas Wolfe. He says, 'No man knows his father's face.' And, that mystery, that unavoidable distance between human beings that we constantly try to bridge through conversation, through presence, through empathy, through care, through love, through action, that's what makes us human. And to say that we don't need that or we can substitute something else for it, I think is anti-human.

That Bambi story is chilling, of course. It's not just like, 'I don't agree with that.' It's like, 'Oh, my goodness, you have a different vision of what a good life is about.'

And I think--I'm going to take a second here to cheaply psychoanalyze this because--I had Nick Bostrom on the program talking about his fears of superintelligence. And I suggested to him that his view of machines was very much like the medieval view of God: omniscient, omnipresent, can do anything. There's a certain similar--to me in that Minsky quote. It's like: We'll be taken care of by a machine? I mean, it's such a myth. It's no different than the myth of religion. It's just a different kind of religion. It's the utopian, Edenic, utopian/heaven will be perfect. I'm a religious person, by the way. I like religion. I just think this is just a different religion.

Sherry Turkle: But, it's a religion without--I mean, maybe that's what you're getting at with religion, but it's a religion that takes away some essential things about what it is to be in relationship with other people. I mean, religion does try to explore the needs of the body, the relationships between parents and children, the complexity--I mean, religion isn't just the transcendent moment of the Rapture. I mean, religion--

Russ Roberts: It's not just the opium of the masses.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah. I mean, religion isn't just the rapture where you leave the body, where you--I mean, religion, I'm Jewish, it does try to take into account the complex negotiations among people and separation from children and the community. And that's why--it's funny I was--one funny story about the pandemic is, in the middle of the pandemic when I was at my most anxious, let's say. In the beginning of the pandemic, I did not do well because I think of myself as very fit and very--I'm fit and very taking care of myself and very young-ish. And all of a sudden, at the pandemic, I was in the danger zone.

Russ Roberts: Right. You're--

Sherry Turkle: Over 60, you're in the danger zone.

Russ Roberts: Yep. I know that feeling.

Sherry Turkle: So, all of a sudden, I went from fit and elegant to danger-of-dying zone.

Russ Roberts: Yes.

Sherry Turkle: Okay, I didn't like that. I got very depressed and I was living in a high rise. I ran to my country--my house on the beach. My daughter and her new husband came with me, and I sort of calmed down and in the middle of my--but I did have what you might call a little anxiety attack in the first few weeks. Every time I had a dry cough, I immediately thought the end was nigh and--

Russ Roberts: Yep, I know all of that.

Sherry Turkle: My daughter made me a cup of tea and said, 'I don't think the end is nigh,' and she was very sweet to me; and I'm grateful to my loving, loving Rebecca.

So, as this was all happening, I got a call from a New York Times reporter. He wants me to know he's writing a story, would I care to comment: More people than ever are downloading this chatbot called Replika, which can pretend to be your best friend. It can pretend to be a psychotherapist. It can talk to you about anything, anything, anything. Fabulous. What do I think? So, I said, 'Well, you know what I think. You called me, because you wanted me to say--everybody else you're talking to says it's buttered toast. You know you called me so I would say something bad about Replika.'

'I mean, so of course I'm going to say something bad about Replika; but let me go on, let me make a Replika, this little avatar. Let me chat with it and then I'll tell you what--I mean, let me just not say it's--of course, I think I don't like it, but let me do it.'

So I go online, I make a Replika, give it a nice name. I make a version that's appealing for me to chat with. And I say the Replika, 'Look, Replika, my name is Sherry. I want to talk to you about what's really on my mind, what's troubling me.' Replika says, 'Yes, that's what I'm here for. Anything that's on your mind.' [inaudible 00:48:51] I said, 'Well, actually, do you know how to talk about loneliness? Because that's, like, my main problem.'

'Oh, yes. Loneliness.' [inaudible 00:49:01] So I said, 'Well, what do you think about loneliness? That's my main problem.' Replika says, 'Loneliness is warm and fuzzy.' And so I know this was some kind of programming mistake; it was fixed [? 00:49:21] the day after--this was the only time it happened. The Replika people saw this and the next day, they were on it. I said, 'Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate your time.' I took a screenshot. I think I wrote back to the New York Times reporter with this. And I said, 'Look, I'm not blaming Replika for not knowing about loneliness. Why should a program know about loneliness? I'm just saying this is not yet ready to talk to me about my--why should it know about what it's like to live on a--I'm on a beautiful beach, I'm on the Rose Beach. I have a beautiful situation. But, why should this program know about what my problem is?'

'Before you hype this thing to the skies'--he didn't even include this in his--I mean, he wanted to write a great piece about it. So, my feeling is, is that at the essence of it, this is not--our humanity should not be, like, chasing after something that the machines are just not good for. More than ever in this country, we should be cultivating our empathy rather than chasing after something that--there's no reason that machines should have empathy and pretend empathy. We need our empathy more than ever. Our country is divided. We need to understand people who have the most deeply different opinions than many of us--not many of us--we all need to understand each other better, and machines are not going to--machine conversations I just think are going to get in our way.

So,l I think we should be cultivating empathy. It's a big message of The Empathy Diaries of little ways to get there: through active listening, through learning to not just put yourself in the other person's place but to really say, 'I don't know what this other person is thinking. How can I start to learn that? What practices do I need to get into to begin to understand what this other person is thinking?' As opposed to, 'Oh, I'm just in the other person's place. I see it all.' Radical humility, a lot of effort, a lot of learning, maybe some reading, questions, a little ethnography wouldn't[?] help, little public policy so that we're not starting from such radical differences of situation. It's not the time for to call in some robot.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree with you obviously. But, I do think there's a--

Sherry Turkle: 'Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?'

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly one of my favorite pieces of dark humor.


Russ Roberts: But, I think there's a--I read a good chunk of your other--not your book. You've written quite a few. But, your other recent book, Reclaiming Conversation. It's a fantastic book that talks about the dangers and harms that come from avoiding boredom, say, or avoiding any kind of loneliness, not for three weeks but for three minutes. Right? Now what a weird--

Sherry Turkle: Not for a year.

Russ Roberts: Right. But, what a weird moment we're in where we feel--and I have this, as well. Certainly young people feel more strongly, the need to check our phones for a text, or a message, or just distraction, just entertainment, just something not to be alone with myself.

And I wanted to challenge you on this because I think we're all a little bit torn. I know that my life is better when I talk to my wife without thinking about my phone. I know that my life is better when I talk to my wife without my phone even nearby, because I don't even want to be tempted to look at it.

You give the example and we all know it--you're having a conversation, somebody can't remember something, and say, 'I'll just Google this for a second,' and then of course when you do that, you go down a rabbit hole sometimes. I love it when I'm working away at something and I get distracted for a second. Oh, no, I'm not distracted. I need to look that up. I go look it up, but before I do, I see something else. Ten minutes go by and then I think, 'I wonder why I got on here,' and then I go back to the original thing. 'Yeah, I was going to check---.' So, we've got this compulsive need to be distracted, to be entertained, to avoid moments of solitude, as opposed to loneliness. Solitude, being alone with ourselves in a good way.

We don't like that, so we're drawn to this piece of hardware which, as you point out, it's extraordinary, and I love it. It's fantastic. So many great things about it. And yet I'm seduced by it. I think I'm not alone and you write about many, many, many people who struggle with this tension. Other than lecturing and proselytizing and hectoring people, how do we encourage our family and friends to embrace a little more solitude, a little less distraction?

Sherry Turkle: Well, there's nothing more irritating than a busybody who comes and gives you bad news that you don't want to--so, I embrace that role with--not comfortably.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sure.

Sherry Turkle: And, nevertheless, somebody, if not me, who? There's a great line in psychoanalytic thinking which is: if you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely. It's worth just thinking about what that means. It comes originally from David Winnicott. It's a little bit of a tweak. 'If you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only know how to be lonely.'

What that line means is that if you can't be content with yourself, quiet, not stimulated, not with a screen, not knowing who wants you, not knowing who is trying to reach you, not knowing what just happened to--well, today, the news is Ted Cruz, so just use dating where I am right now, not knowing what happened to Ted Cruz today, not knowing what happened to whoever tomorrow.

You look to other people to tell you you're okay, to tell you who you are, because you don't quite know who you are just by yourself. Which means you're dependent on other people to tell you who you are, and then you can't really form a relationship with them based on, 'Well, who are they?' because you're not completely knowledgeable about you. And we all shun those people--consciously or unconsciously; we like to meet people who know who they are, and who come to us knowing who they are, and so we can meet them know--we know who we are and we meet these new people and get to know them, and that's what forms the best kind of mutual relationship.

So, what solitude does for you is not make you some kind of loner--'I want to be alone, I want to be at the row[?], I want to go to my cabin.' It makes you someone who is content and sort of who exudes a sense of self knowledge and completeness enough to turn to somebody and say, 'Well, so, who are you? I'd like to get to know you. Tell me something about yourself.'

And so, what phones do, particularly when you start to give them to young kids, is it cuts that process off. Because, in the very beginning, they're stimulated with the world in a way that doesn't give them time and space and that necessary solitude to really figure out who they are by themselves.

If you're always looking at your screen, you really never turn to somebody else and say, 'So, what's with you?' I mean, 'What's happening with you? Let me give you my full attention.' Like, you're giving me your full attention now, and we're having a conversation which would not be enhanced if you were also reading War and Peace on a screen on your spectacles.

Russ Roberts: Off to the side.

Sherry Turkle: Off to the side. And, you know, even if it was a great screen reader and you could do it and somehow you could fake it in your eyeglasses, mimic--you had a fake eyes so I didn't see it--there'd be something that would be the tell, that I would know that we weren't locked in a conversation and you weren't interested in me.

So, the first thing I think that helps is for people to take a moment and to think about the reason that they're doing this instead of 'Okay, I'm not going to make a rule. I'm not going to do it. I'm just going to not look at my screen.'

Take a minute to think about what's at stake, and tell your children what's at stake. That the reason you're doing this is that 'If you don't learn to just be able to be alone by yourself, you're really not going to be able to have the friendships you want. And you know what? You know how I know this is? It's because I'm your father. And this is why, for example, you can't read and drive or watch a movie and drive at the same time. Even though a little bit--you're promising me that your teenage eyes are so brilliant that you can take your eyes off the road and also drive. You can't do it because I'm your father and I'm telling you that that is like really not a good idea and you can't do that.'

There are lots of things we tell our children that are not good for them, and we simply say, 'We're telling you this on the basis of what we know is really important for your being able to have the best possible experience later. Do your homework because, honestly, it really will--there's a big payoff from doing your homework. Go to school: there's a big payoff from not playing hooky. Eat healthy food: there's a big payoff for your bones later.' I chased my poor daughter around with calcium foods. I feel so--I honestly just--my child has bones of steel--

Russ Roberts: There you go--

Sherry Turkle: because I was so abandoned in the calcium department when I was a child. For a Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn, I swear to God--they just let me moulder. My daughter was just bones of steel. We joke about it, but it was like, 'Hate me then.'

So, I mean, I think the first thing to motivate people is you try the best you can as a parent, and then talking to yourself, 'Why aren't you eating meat every night? Why aren't you eating the foods that will make you sick every night? Why aren't you eating the carbohydrate and other carbohydrates, the transfat things that our ancestors ate with such impunity every day?' I mean, know why you're doing and figure out if it's a goal for you. There's a powerful reason to put down your phone and to make eye contact with the people you're talking to, and then, 'Do it because I told you so.'

Russ Roberts: I used to take notes when my guests were talking about things that came up, I wanted to put a link to it. And I realized--

Sherry Turkle: Wrong--

Russ Roberts: Wrong. Bad idea.

Sherry Turkle: Bad idea.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to make a different case. I want to see what you think of this. It's a little bit offbeat. I'm going to start by mentioning one of my favorite musicals is Next to Normal. And, it's a very dark musical. When the first act of that show ended, when I saw it with Rachel Bay Jones in the title role, in the lead role, I was so overwhelmed emotionally. I couldn't move. I just sat there. I was probably crying. I wasn't alone, by the way. The place was just stuck--the theater was packed, the Kennedy Center was stock still. My wife told me that when she went into the women's room after the first intermission: it was totally silent. No one was talking.

It was such a powerhouse of a moment. It's why I like musical theater. A lot of musicals don't do that, don't work, bad performance, whatever. But, when you have that extraordinary exposure to a human being's experience, which is what she captured in that performance, Rachel Bay Jones, there's nothing like it. It's an enormous part of being human. I had a connection with--just think about weird this is, right? I'm sitting in the audience, and I feel this incredible emotional connection to this stranger who is portraying a fictional character. But, it's part of our humanity.

And I think a great conversation--and I've had a handful of my life. I don't have one every day. I love my wife. We have a great relationship. Not every conversation we have is overwhelming, right? Just the nature of conversation. But, a handful of times, there's an unforgettable moment where you connect with another human being. And that requires presence. It requires empathy. It requires full attention. And it's not like, 'You go through all the other ones because every once in a while you get a gem,' but it's just part of the human experience. And, if you do not cultivate that, you will not have that.

It doesn't make you money. There's no transactional aspect to it. It's just part of the human experience. And for me--and I struggle with this--I'm not suggesting I'm some phenomenal person at avoiding his phone. I spend way too much time on my phone. I take apps off my phone sometimes to keep me from being overly distracted by them, and I struggle with it all the time. But I do think it's a struggle worth having because I think without that, you're not careful, you just go through life like a cork on the ocean, and that's depressing.

Sherry Turkle: We are saying the same thing in different ways. I'm saying that you have to get yourself into a state of mind to be practicing to be ready to have it. You won't be able to have it if you're not a good enough listener to have it. In other words, people say, 'Oh, conversation. I know how to do that.' A conversation with empathy, learning how to be empathic in a conversation, is not something you can do just because you're talking and they're talking. Learning how to pay attention to it. This is something I tried to talk about a little bit in The Empathy Diaries.

In other words, empathy is an active. It's an active thing. It's not just listening when it's your side and saying, 'Oh, I wonder how they're feeling.' It's listening on your side and saying, 'I don't know how they're feeling. How can I--what do I have to do to figure out how they're feeling?'

It's a skill. It's a work. It's a practice that we need to get better at. It's not kind of a passive Kumbaya thing.

And, one of the things I have now that everybody, every politician wants us to have empathy, everybody's talking about empathy, is that people seem to think that: Well, to have empathy, you just have to be sitting opposite somebody. No. You have to get yourself ready for empathy; and the sure way to not get ready for empathy is to be having a conversation with somebody holding your phone. So, I mean, we're agreeing. I think we're just saying it in somewhat different ways.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, here's an observation I made recently. I don't remember which episode. You think it's strange that we don't have any formal, even informal, ways of teaching people how to have a conversation? Conversation, which is such a human part of the human experience, is something that we're presumed to just learn through growing up. We watch other people talk and we figure it out. Why aren't there course--may there are courses at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], but I don't think it's common that there are courses on how to talk. You think that's interesting?

Sherry Turkle: I do. I do. But, I think a lot of that is because we used to rely so much--the culture used to rely so much on dinner, and sitting around. The culture hasn't caught up to the culture. I grew up in a family where we sat around before dinner in the kitchen helping my grandmother cook. Then we had dinner, which was a long conversation. Then we did the dishes--long conversation. Then we sat around--long conversation. And, we fought and argued about everything. Then if we watched television we--the reason I was one of the slowest to catch on that television was a passive medium is because in my family we argued around television. [crosstalk 01:09:27]

I mean, it was like, 'No, no! No! no! He's wrong.' 'He's right.' 'I hate this.' 'I love this.' So, my family might have been a little off the charts, but I think a lot of families talked, and people learned to talk in their families. We haven't caught up to the fact that now everybody goes to their room and watches TV alone, on their own TV, on their own screen; or they're at dinner and they're watching their screen, or they're sitting around in the living room and they're all on their own screen with their own earbuds.

So I think your comment is really quite apt. Quite apt. And, what's very sad--and here's something I feel very strongly about--is that in universities, in high schools, in classrooms, if you take people out of classrooms and put them in virtual classrooms, you take away a premium place for learning conversation, a most important place for learning conversation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's true.

Sherry Turkle: So, one of the big reasons I'm for bringing people out of virtual classrooms, no matter how cheap, no matter how--making people come back into physical classrooms as soon as it's safe, is that kids need to talk to each other.

And even before COVID, there was this horrible movement to have everybody with a virtual blackboard and filling in things on their virtual screens and having teachers just see things tot up on their virtual screens, and people doing exercises on their little Surface eye devices of one sort or another. Conversation was way, way down, even when the kids were together. I think we really need to rethink all of that because the amount of talk in these classrooms was way, way down. Way, way down.

And that is not the right path, from my point of view. We need to emphasize talking, negotiation, listening, what do you think, I never heard of that, explain that to me. I'm not mad at you. Just explain that to me. Explain that to me. Tell me again. I'm not laughing at you. Explain that to me. How does that work? How did you grow up? What were you thinking? How does that work?

I mean, I look at the news and I have to be respectful of the things that my countrymen believe. They're not in my world, but I have to live with these people. I have to find a way to bring these people into a polity with me. And, I better start learning how to listen to them. We all better start learning how to listen to each other, because I believe that a lot of their beliefs are borne out of tremendous deprivation--

Russ Roberts: Pain--

Sherry Turkle: And, pain. That doesn't mean I don't think they're crazy, but they're borne out of deprivation and pain, and not seeing any future, and thinking a future that's nihilistic or evangelic--not even evangelical, but its based on magical thinking of various sorts; it's better than no future at all. So, compassion, empathy, active listening, giving each other the benefit of the doubt: these are not things that any screens have to teach us. There's a line in my book where I say, 'We are the empathy app.' People are the empathy app. The only empathy app.


Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree with that. I'm going to close with a thought on just science and technology generally, and let you react to it. I first want to make an aside: Often in these conversations and in books which I didn't notice in yours very much, neither of them that I read, that people want a public policy to fix something. And, to a large extent, this is our problem. It's not the government's problem. It's not a public policy problem. Some of it is. I mean, there's somethings we've done to our ownership of data, and I think should be changed. But, this is in our hands as parents, as cell phone owners, and as conversationalists: we can make the future what we want of it and I think culture will evolve and emerge to deal with this cultural moment that we're in that's different; and we haven't caught up, as you said.

But, I want to ask you a slightly different question to close with, which is that: you're a fascinating academic phenomenon. You are somebody trained in psychoanalytic technique, sociology, put into a very different cultural milieu of a science-technology place, MIT. You talk a little bit in the book about the challenge of that, and it's fascinating. But, you brought and bring what I would call a psychoanalytic approach, psychotherapeutic approach to some of the dysfunctionality of the current moment in our love with technology. I've been thinking--as listeners know I'm off soon to go to Israel to be President of Shalem College, which is a place that brings--by the time this airs, I think I'll have started there. It brings a very different mindset to a very technological place. Israel has incredible STEM success--Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It's unbelievable what a very, very small country has done in terms of innovation and measurable stuff. But, Shalem is about the unmeasurable stuff, to a large extent. It's about reading the Iliad and Nietzsche and thinking about history and literature and what we used to call the Humanities. And in modern education in America, Humanities have really left the field--have very little to say to the engineer, say, of MIT.

And what I've been thinking about lately is that those engineers I think are starting to ask questions about what the purpose of life is and what's meaningful about their work; and they don't have any tools to think about that.

One set of tools is the psychoanalytic tools that you bring to bear. The other is the great questions of philosophy that have no answers, but that human beings have struggle with from time immemorial. I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that, where we're heading. Certainly the people in STEM have the moral high ground right now: They are the saviors; they are going to give us a world free of debt; we're going to live forever--

Sherry Turkle: They don't have the moral high ground.

Russ Roberts: Well, they think they do. They have the cultural--

Sherry Turkle: They have a high ground.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Okay, but they have the cultural high ground. They speak with authority, they're going to bring us the future. They're going to bring us a world where everything's going to be taken care. There will be an app for that. And technology will save us. 'And it'll create some problems, but we'll create technologies that will solve those problems.' You make fun of that a little bit in the book, too. What are your thoughts on that these days in terms of where we're heading educationally, and what you would like to see or what you think would be of interest to people who are in STEM, in technology, and what they're thirsty for? Are they thirsty for what you have to offer?

Sherry Turkle: I think--well, let me just take this from the top. I think I disagree a little bit with your premise, which I think that this COVID crisis has changed some hearts and minds in that it showed that you can have tremendous technological innovation, amazing, but if you don't have social, political, cultural, kind of sociological, psychological understanding of your situation on the ground--of communities, of culture, of your infrastructure and psychology of your people--you just have a lot of science in vials. And how much the absence of bringing in social science, and psychologists, and infrastructure workers into thinking about the COVID rollout--and politics, and the softer side of things--meant that the scientists standing all there alone with their precious liquid were scientists standing with their precious expensive miracle drug.

So, I think that what the observer of the COVID experience is that you didn't just need a bunch of people saying, 'Get me a drug. Get me a drug.' You needed the full sweep of the kind of human knowledge, compassion and empathy and knowledge that people like me people, people like social scientists and political scientists and community workers and, you know--to get this thing in the arms of people. And gradually we're sort of getting to that place.

But, I--I think that we've had an on-the-ground demo of how scientists standing alone, no matter how brilliant, could not do the job. So, I take something a little bit different from this most recent experience in science and its place in society. Others may feel differently, but that's what I took. As to the--

Russ Roberts: Well, they got the vaccine in two days. The science took them two days--

Sherry Turkle: What?

Russ Roberts: two days. It's taken us a year, over a year, to begin to get it actually to be useful. It's kind of the difference between innovation and invention to some extent.

Sherry Turkle: Yes. But--

Russ Roberts: But, the point is that innovation--

Sherry Turkle: But, social scientists could have been mobilized from the beginning making a plan for, when you had it, what would you do with it?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I would have called Fred Smith, at FedEx. And it's weird that we had a President who was allegedly a person from the world of business, who didn't leverage any of that--

Sherry Turkle: Well, let's not get into--the point is that you could have called in the--

Russ Roberts: Someone--

Sherry Turkle: people who understand. But, the point is you didn't just need scientists--

Russ Roberts: Fair enough--

Sherry Turkle: in your laboratory.

Russ Roberts: Agreed. Agreed.

Sherry Turkle: That was my point.

Russ Roberts: Agreed. Yeah.

Sherry Turkle: That was my point. Scientists standing alone, saying, 'We have the expertise. I teach in a program called Science, Technology and Society.' You needed the society.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Agreed.

Sherry Turkle: Right. Okay. I think that science has proved itself, very, very dangerous when it didn't take the human question: is--what is the science for? why exactly do we need this? into account.

And my best example, just to take an example, is one of scientists' highest values is that things should be friction-free. I end in my book on this question. Friction-free is always good if you're an engineer. Always.

But, friction-free is not always good in human relationships. Friction in human relationships is what makes people understand each other, what--the moments where you say, 'Hey, what do you mean? What's going on here? What's happening in this organization? Are we falling in love because we're having a moment in which a difference is coming up where there's a spark? Is this company taking off because we're coming across something where, you know, we're onto something?'

I mean, friction in human relationships is not a bad thing. We've always known that.

So, adopting the friction-free model, and saying, 'Well, let's just get everything in human relationships friction free,' is always a mistake.

And yet, technologists are always trying to apply it to businesses, to schools, to wherever they go. It's like that's what they're trying to put in.

So, I'm for saying, 'Look, we fell in love with the Internet, that's natural. It was new. But, my favorite line--I gave a TED talk and a line that I spent--I must have been two weeks writing this line--was, 'Just because we grew up with the Internet, it doesn't mean that the Internet is all grown up.'

We think it's mature just because we matured with it and now we're old, but actually, it's for us to make it now, by the values that are our values.

And so that's where I rest my case: Is that its on human values that we now have to bring to our technologies. And not to say, 'Well, they're in charge now because they have such brilliant technologies.' Now it's time--we've lived with these technologies for a while, and now we see how much trouble they've got us in. There's no intimacy. There's no democracy without privacy. There's no intimacy without privacy. If you scrape my data, I'm afraid to speak up. Without my speaking up, there's no democracy. You can't live in a surveillance society and expect it to be a democratic society.

These are all things that stand in front of us that we have to fix, and they have nothing to do with technologists getting things friction free and kind of smooth in their programming. These are political decisions for political animals, which are people.

And, I am on the side of saying instead of punishing ourselves and berating ourselves that we didn't get it right the first time: it is natural we didn't get it right the first time. This was a kind of world historical new kind of technology. It's a new technology. It's not an old technology. And now it's time to get it right.

This whole thing about the genie is out of the bottle, the horse is out of the barn--Oh, come on. Come on. I mean, this kind of passivity is, you know--democracy is dead. No, no, this can--now is the time. It's a new technology and there's no reason we knew, no reason we should have known how to get it right in the first 20 years. This thing is going to be around a long time. And just like we have massively screwed up on the environment, you know, to the point of destruction: Time to get it right, people, in a hurry. Doesn't mean we should be passive now and just sit around and watch the earth burn.

So, I think we face tremendous challenges, but it certainly isn't time to say, 'Oh, woe is me. We got it wrong. Let's let the scientists just continue to do what they've always done.' You see, this has touched a spot.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Sherry Turkle. Her book is The Empathy Diaries. Sherry, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Sherry Turkle: My pleasure.

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