Can the ‘talking cure’ reconnect ‘a band of tweeters’?

It’s one thing for us to tolerate distraction in the workplace as devices buzz and chime through meetings, but it’s a bit more unnerving to consider the scenario described by a U.S. Army major as soldiers returning from a combat mission opt out of conversation and sit “silently in front of computer screens, posting about their day on Facebook”.

John Spencer is the Army major expressing concern over how “global connectedness has altered almost every facet of a soldier’s daily life”.

“The term “band of brothers” has become almost a cliché to describe how the close personal bonds formed between soldiers translate into combat effectiveness. Yet my combat experience in Iraq suggests that the kind of unit cohesion we saw in past wars may be coming undone because of a new type of technological cohesion: social media, and too much connectivity.”

It’s one more example to support the 30 years of research conducted by MIT professor, Sherry Turkle.

“We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.”

Professor Turkle cites the research of Howard Gardner and Katie Davis on what they call the “app generation,” which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.”

Which brings us back to 2008 and Major Spencer’s observations of his ‘band of tweeters’.

“In 2008, I saw the soldiers’ individuality in battle. I saw them arguing about what decisions to make. I often observed much more transactional communications where there would have been friendly banter in the past. Groups seemed unable to learn from their daily challenges or direct any intergroup policing of individual actions. I saw these things especially in the younger soldiers.”

He goes on to emphasize the importance of motivation and social cohesion for any large organization, but identifies the need for conversation as critical in the military workplace.

“What all of the research highlights is the importance of conversation during noncombat time — the hours of nothingness, the shared boredom — where bonds of trust, friendships and group identity are built.”

Most of us go to work in a place where guns and ammo are not part of our daily existence. But the risks to our health and well-being might be in equal jeopardy when we multi-task, “always available elsewhere”.

At the end of his essay, Major Spencer suggests “developing structures to organize the social interactions and conversations that used to occur spontaneously. This would include requiring soldiers to hold post-patrol gatherings on top of their usual mission reviews. This debriefing concept is very effective within other organizations. I would also shift the trend from small two- to four-man living spaces and increase them to four to six, both in stateside bases and especially in combat.”

And leave the devices in another room. Disconnected, we can reestablish conversation.

Professor Turkle cites psychologist Yalda T. Uhls’ research with children at a ‘device free’ camp, demonstrating our capacity for resilience when we untether for a period of time.

“After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”

“Conversation is the antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality.”

Our technology alerts us to ‘recalculate’ when we choose to diverge from the programmed path. It’s another ownership issue of our humanity, to take back control of conversation in a ‘tech free’ space.

“This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

And for our ‘band of brothers’ (and sisters) –

“… the benefits of hyper-connectivity for individual soldiers shouldn’t outweigh the collective costs of social cohesion…”

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