The Empathy Diaries
- Sherry Turkle
- My last highlight
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For years afterward, I tried to learn a way of being that would make me at ease in the world without blaming myself for what I didn’t know along the way.
In the years to come, I would often lose my way in how to chart my career. When this happened, I summoned the experience of Social Studies 10. Not because it suggested any specific direction but because it offered this: Try to do the work that brings out the best in you. I say this to my students: You are at university to understand your gifts and what you love to do. If you are lucky, they will be the same thing. If not, let’s talk and see if we can increase the overlap. If you relish your work, you will not have a disappointing career. When failures come, and they come to everyone, you will have loved the work itself. •
I had to promise that my home would never have a Christmas tree. That was an easy promise. Christmas trees had angels and five-pointed stars.
I came to believe that the right paper, the right binder, the right fountain pen could confer special powers.
I’ve explored the human effects of science and technology since I arrived at MIT from Harvard in 1976 with a doctorate in sociology and psychology. My subject is the “inner history” of technology, how it changes our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves. Over the years at MIT, I have been able to see how easy it is for a fascination with technology to take well-intentioned people away from empathy and its simple human truths. So technologists become invested in the promise of electronic medical records and forget how important it is for physicians to make eye contact with patients during their meetings. Engineers become fixed on the idea of efficiency, and soon it seems like a good thing to prefer texting to face-to-face talk, because on screens we can discuss personal matters with less emotional vulnerability. Talking to and through machines makes face-to-face exchanges with people seem oddly stressful. And less necessary. These days, our technology treats us as though we were objects and we get in the habit of objectifying one another as bits of data, profiles viewed. But only shared vulnerability and human empathy allow us to truly understand one another.
This may seem like a complicated conversation for a kindergarten-age child on a hot summer morning before 9:00 a.m. while waiting for a malted. It never seemed that way to me. This was how my family talked. During television commercials: why Joseph McCarthy needed to be stopped in order to save democracy. Over Rice Krispies at breakfast: ruminations about the Holocaust. While I was in the bath: how someone like Hitler could take power in the United States. No transitions. I think this has given a characteristic cadence to my conversation. No matter what the occasion—I could be hosting a birthday party, I could be buying shoes with my daughter, I could be about to kiss my lover—I’m always one sentence away from bringing up democracy, religious freedom, the rights of minorities, all of these in danger.
Television at our house was a medium you engaged with by commenting on the news, disagreeing with the politicians, and reviewing performances in real time. When, much later, I became engaged in debates about the dangerous “passivity” of television viewing, I knew that my own family hadn’t gotten the memo.
My grandparents’ emotional lives seemed ruled by a fear of being singled out as Jews. The Bonowitzes felt connected to the Old World—but here we were in Brooklyn, with no one left in Wolozin, unmoored in an America about which my family, at least, never felt fully certain. The anti-Semitism of the 1930s had been hard on them. The hesitancy of America to enter World War II upset them every day, and for long after the war was over.
Despite my total lack of musicality or dramatic talent, for several years my mother was convinced that I would become a nightclub singer. Only because it’s what she wanted to do. So for my tenth birthday, going to a local Brooklyn supper club—called the Elegante—was my designated treat. When the chanteuse came onstage, my mother nudged me to pay close attention. I knew she hoped the performance would inspire me to a life on the stage. I remember feeling immune to her exertions.
I loved fountain pens and beautifully bound notebooks.
I think of this moment often because it had to be the first time I was given a clue that my mother was ill, and I chose to not pay attention. Or rather, I paid close attention and did what the grown-ups signaled they wanted from me: to pretend not to notice what was happening. I knew I could receive no comfort, because no one would admit that anything sad had happened. It was a very particular loneliness: knowing that people around you were also sad but that you couldn’t be sad together.
So many members of these old Brooklyn shuls were Holocaust survivors. Or, as in the case of my family, they had lost whatever extended family they had in Eastern Europe. These bar mitzvahs celebrated that another generation of Jews was alive.
As Israeli politics turned more conservative, he comforted me by asking me to be empathic: When people are under daily siege, he said, they are overwhelmed by fear for themselves and their families instead of what is good for the country. They can lose their moral compass. It was just this, the frailty of people under pressure, that made Israel such an existential necessity for Rabbi Wagner. Tyrants often use anti-Semitism as a shortcut to fascism, he said. Jews are and will always be the other. Jews need a place to go. As a survivor of the camps, he felt this viscerally.
Rabbi Wagner explained that Jewish men from Europe felt that they had allowed the Holocaust to happen to their families.
When we came to a scene that referred to sex, Mrs. Dome simply said, “You’ll understand that later; you don’t need to understand all of Shakespeare now,” and we breezed right by. When I consider elementary school, I think that permission to not understand was its greatest gift. Later in life, I would come to a rough patch, say, in French social theory, and if I was understanding something but not much, I would say to myself: This is only the beginning. This isn’t your last chance to read Derrida. Keep at it.
At thirteen, if you were invited to a boy’s bar mitzvah, you went to services on Saturday morning and then to a party, usually that night.
I remember how soothing it was for an adult in my family to acknowledge my reality.
My grandmother hadn’t taught her daughters to cook, because she wanted them to have maids just as her mother had. An immigrant dream gone amiss.
I find it helpful to think about those days because it reminds me how sexism, like racism and authoritarianism, can seem invisible when it is the familiar. Harvard professors seemed to me the authorities on how to do experiments. And they were telling me that this was how experiments were done. This was the expected. The expected is invisible. To see your own culture, you have to make the natural unfamiliar.
It was at the taupe Smith Corona that I began to seriously think about the idea of evocative objects, objects that carry meaning far beyond their instrumental value. When I began to use the Smith Corona, I felt the full force of my grandmother’s love. When, after two years at Radcliffe, I had talked with her about waiting in line for the public-use typewriters and borrowing typewriters that belonged to other girls, she had gone to the Macy’s department where I had shopped with her since childhood. The same department where she bought me my first record player, my first album, and my own copy of Little Women. I could feel her wanting me to succeed and not knowing what she could do. And then her pleasure when she found that it was in her power to help.
No one had told them that our mother was dying or gravely ill. They still thought that she was recuperating from pneumonia. I told Milton that he must prepare them. He wouldn’t talk about it. I knew this was wrong, but I didn’t feel that I could defy him. He was their father.
I felt a growing connection with the young Germans I met in my travels. Conversations with them reminded me that when people see their society begin to go mad, individuals feel small and disempowered. Political theorist Hannah Arendt called it the kind of loneliness that made it impossible to see yourself as connected enough to the world to act in the world. Totalitarianism thrives on it. During the rise of fascism, many Germans and Jews had believed that things would right themselves.
At lunch and dinner, constant conversation. It was expected that everyone at the table would have gone to an exposition or to the theater or be reading a serious book. It was not enough to have gone to a museum. You had to share an opinion on what you had seen. So this was not only about speaking French. It was not just Madame Mullender’s gregarious nature or French politeness. It was about learning how to say something surprising, arresting, perhaps useful.
Loneliness in Paris is broken by the warmth of what sociologists call its “third places,” places where you can be alone in public, that is, alone but still part of an informal community.
It was a common assumption in the 1980s that “good programming” was done in an “engineer’s style,” that is, in a top-down, divide-and-conquer way. But when I studied expert programmers as well as children learning to program, I found a range of styles. To learn or make something new, people have to work in their own style. It’s as true of engineers as it is of poets. And it was particularly relevant to women who were trying to find a way into programming in the early years of a computer culture that was unwelcoming to them.
Equity would be served by epistemological pluralism, a message that engineers were not eager to hear.
In postwar America, I grew up with the message that I could choose how to be Jewish. Minimal participation in organized Judaism would not make me less Jewish. My grandfather’s religious practice consisted of eating the traditional foods that went with each holiday season. And on the eve of Yom Kippur, he listened to a recording of Jan Peerce, a great American operatic tenor of the 1940s, singing Kol Nidre, the prayer in which Jews ask for forgiveness for sins committed in the year that has just passed. In France, the only synagogues were Orthodox.
When I told French people I had visited Drancy, where French Jews had been detained before being sent to Auschwitz, some told me that no such thing had happened. Or that they had never heard of such a thing. Some said I was perhaps making up this story to excuse my own country for its moral crimes in Vietnam.
I could tell that I was going to be some kind of writer. I even had an idea for my senior thesis and thought I might try to be a professor, but I worried that I didn’t know any women academics. Mildred shrugged. “I think you should take it as far as you can take it. Until you are stopped and you don’t see a way around.” I stared at her, moved. Mildred had served her bosses and didn’t know how to break out of that cycle. She had no confidence in herself. She only had confidence in me.
I asked the social historian Barrington Moore to be my thesis adviser. He agreed, and at our first meeting he gave me advice that I remember this way: “When you start a big project, you should have done enough research to know what your story will look like if you find the data you need, if everyone you want to interview is able to talk to you, if everything goes perfectly.” In other words, at the beginning, you face a lot of work ahead. It’s possible you will come up with nothing. But be sure that in the best case, you will end up with something you will love.
In The Ritual Process, Turner called transitional moments “liminal,” literally, threshold states. He argued that on a personal level, liminality encouraged change and creativity. On a social level, it fostered new symbols, rituals, art, and language.
When I met Victor Turner in the spring of 1970, he managed to give me the feeling that we had been talking for days, had been interrupted, but now were happily carrying on with our important work.
my growing interest in ethnography—the documentation of individuals and cultures by living and working with as well as interviewing those you study.
You never finish a great book. You keep reading it, doing your best to make it your own.
In Neurotic Styles, Shapiro translates what Freud called neuroses (and thought of as illnesses) into a series of styles through which people cope with life’s troubles. Where illness was, let defensive style be.
In any interview, researchers should ask: To whom is this subject speaking? For whom is this subject potentially performing? If this subject is belligerent, whom or what might they be frightened of? And further questions for researchers: Whom does this subject remind you of? What feelings does this interview arouse in you? If ethnographers better understood their own pasts, they could see the objects of present study with greater clarity.
The things that come out during the practice of ethnography can transform the relationship between ethnographer and subject. And change their lives. A naive ethnographer could stir a lot up without knowing what was going on.
Riesman’s classic work, The Lonely Crowd, was an attempt to understand what lay beneath a particular American loneliness.
I had a great advantage: I was talking to people who were invested in my topic.
Once, I was bold or perhaps naive enough to ask him why he didn’t explain things this simply in his writing, and he said that he wanted people to struggle with themselves as they unpacked his work. Reading psychoanalytic texts should be self-analytic. Ecrits should be read in little bits and puzzled over. It’s like reading poetry. You don’t try to speed-read. The idea is to have an experience that changes you.
Mildred said to me, “Sherry, thank you. You have come through for me.” When she said this, something in me took shape that was not there before. Later I told her how much her “thank you” meant to me. Mildred gave me the gift of seeing me as separate from her.
Papert, who had been so helpful during the Lacan visit, had run a series of workshops on what he called “loud thinking.” There, people solved problems while talking them through in front of others, already a valued method in building artificial intelligence.
As my career developed, I watched people cycle through different versions of how they thought about their minds: Freudian-style memory catcher, information processor, and a biological system, ready for chemical manipulation. People now use all of these models, depending on the circumstance. We take medication and interpret our dreams. We do behavioral therapy and have a personal mantra for meditation. If there’s a movement, it’s toward psychological and therapeutic pluralism.
The two men stayed focused on the juggling lesson for an hour, with snack breaks for Zabar’s delicacies and moments of frustration. But my grandfather learned to juggle—enough. And more extraordinary, at some point, Seymour began to ask him how he felt about it. Loud thinking. What was working? Not working? How could they fix it? What was coming to mind?
We read the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott on transitional objects. These are the objects of the playroom (the teddy bear, the bits of silk from a blanket) that children treat as though they were part of their own bodies and also separate from them. They are in a space betwixt and between self and not-self. Later in life we have experiences—sexual, artistic, creative, and spiritual—that bring us back to the feelings associated with those early objects. The compelling nature of programming, that feeling of getting lost in code, seemed to have something of the power of transitional objects. In programming, people get involved, body and mind.
Marvin and Seymour made a world where intellect was valued more highly than empathy, a good conversation more highly than common courtesy. Seymour was being as rude to Marvin as he was to me. Marvin was sharing his code: To be interesting, Seymour did not have to be kind. He had to be brilliant. I knew that the two men saw each other as lifelong friends. But that evening, as we ate in silence, this friendship seemed oddly transactional.
Then Weizenbaum made a leap that I hadn’t: It was therefore immoral to teach children to program. When he looked at the children Seymour was teaching, Weizenbaum didn’t see the wonder of “powerful ideas.” He saw the spread of a dangerous way of thinking to the young and vulnerable. Programming served as a primer in instrumental reason, a form of rationality that focused on the most efficient means to achieve an end but did not reflect on the values of that end. The act of programming, said Weizenbaum, encouraged programmers to live in the closed world of the machine. Where Seymour saw computers as a privileged place to learn, Weizenbaum saw a place where you could forget other people and your emotional and moral responsibilities to them.
But the engineering aesthetic (you can understand everything; you can get everything to work with greater efficiency and less friction) runs into trouble when you use it to think about people and their social relationships. To understand people, the most important step often involves stopping to appreciate that you have a story with at least two points of view. There may not be measurements at all. The most relevant data may be feelings. Feelings aren’t friction free but conflict ridden.
experimental subjects. It was a time of dashed myths. I was haunted by fathers who looked at children and assumed object ownership rather than relationship.
I had no idea if these feelings were justified. When I become angry, it always comes with self-doubt: I fear that I am too much Robert Bonowitz’s grandchild.
Apple called its interface “transparent.” But this transparency was what we used to mean when we said “opacity.”
The computer offered the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. You could interact but never feel vulnerable to another person.
Our capacity for solitude is undermined as soon as we introduce a screen. Screens not only distract us but encourage us to look to others for our sense of self. What is lost when this new circle draws us in? Attention to others. Attention to oneself. The capacity for solitude without stimulation—which is where the capacity for empathy is born. We can’t relate to others until we are comfortable with ourselves. That’s a psychoanalytic first principle: If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.
Communicating on screens makes us feel less vulnerable, but empathy requires vulnerability. And it’s our capacity to be vulnerable that makes us most human.
I devoted myself to exploring my own life in practices that asked me, essentially, to become a stranger to my own voice in order to hear it in a different way: I did this in psychoanalytic work of the classical kind, where my analyst sat behind me and I, as a patient, reclined on a couch and free-associated four days a week. And I continued in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, where the patient and analyst are face-to-face.
This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things.