Tag - civics

Let’s Talk about Talk
On PAR (Participatory Action Research) and Social Design for Community Engagement [#CuriousCoLab]

Let’s Talk about Talk

I ordered Sherry Turkle‘s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age after having read an excerpt in the New York Times Sunday Review titled “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”—a piece I enjoyed so much that I used it in a class I was teaching the very next week. Her previous book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) is a masterpiece that I’ve referenced repeatedly. Because I needed some nonfiction to take with me during my holiday travels, I didn’t page through a copy of the book before deciding to purchase it. I hate to admit that I could have done without reading Reclaiming Conversation in full. Nearly all of its main ideas are previewed in the NYT excerpt as she sketches out her answers to the question motivating her recent research: “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?” There she describes two often unacknowledged social conventions that illustrate what she calls “the flight from conversation” (the title of her earlier New York Times opinion piece from 2012): the “rule of three” (roughly half of one’s group needs to be paying attention to one another, leaving the others to drop out for a while and check their phones) and the “seven minute rule” (the time it takes to for a true conversation to take off, which otherwise will never happen if interruptions cut it short).

But I read every last page of Reclaiming Conversation because of the richness of the examples that Turkle shares from her conversations with people of all walks from life. She analyzes their statements to reveal latent preoccupations and unsaid concerns that are we as a culture should recognize then address. These are the same qualities that made Alone Together so compelling. But Turkle’s new book isn’t written for me, whereas Alone Together was still quasi-scholarly. Reclaiming Conversation is targeted squarely at parents, educators (mainly K-12), and white-collar professionals. In retrospect, it’s easy to appreciate how this book naturally follows her 2012 TED talk (with over three million views) and NYT opinion piece that year. I wouldn’t even say that Turkle is tailoring her message to a general audience so much as wanting to facilitate bottom-up change by helping people understand how to address the dissatisfaction they feel as technology has assumed such a prominent role in their lives.

I appreciated in particular Turkle’s unapologetic defense of the value of empathy and reflective solitude, both displaced by our technologically mediated interactions. She focuses on interpersonal exchange—or a withdrawal from it in order to converse with oneself—because of her training as a psychologist, no doubt. (At one point in Reclaiming Conversation she explicitly defends talk therapy.) But this is important to hear instead of, say, “reading novels builds empathy.” Of course there is messiness in real-time interaction, though we need to experience that to derive value from sustained conversation. And solitude is not as an escape from ourselves but an escape to a space of reflection, a pause before returning to building our relationships.

That way of seeing sets up an unexpected but fascinating discussion of the quantified self. The problem she sees is that devices for personal data tracking provide people with a “number without a narrative”: “Numbers are an element in a narrative process, but they are not just an element. When we have a number, it tends to take on special importance even as it leaves to us all the heavy lifting of narrative construction. Yet it constrains that constructions because the story we tell has to justify the number” (93). Hence the importance of conversation: the data is a conversation starter, a means of discussing possible change, not a line to a foregone conclusion that may be recognized by the individual alone. This is especially important, she notes, because algorithms that crunch these numbers are not made transparent to users.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Reclaiming Conversation was harder for me to enjoy was because I thought that Turke had left aside a discussion of artificial intelligence. A study of attitudes toward robotic companions actually occupies a half of Alone Together, the half not addressed in her TED talk.1 I was surprised to find it was the focus of the very last chapter of Reclaiming Conversation, which seems to relegate her question “What do we forget when we talk to machines?” to the status of appendix. I believe it’s here where the subject of “treating machines as people; treating people as machines” (to quote a subheading in the chapter) clearly surpasses the matter of conversation. “Nurturance turns out to be a ‘killer app.’ Once we take care of a digital creature or teach or amuse it, we become attached to it, and then behave ‘as if’ the creature cares for us in return” (352; italics hers). Not only are our exchanges with artificially intelligent robots not real conversations, but these are fundamentally displaced investments. It would be a real challenge to take up a sustained investigation of this important insight for a general audience, to be sure, and maybe that’s where Turkle ought to direct her next project.

  1. See also “Authenticity in the Age of Digital Companions” (2007) in Interaction Studies 8.3 (p. 501-17) and “In Good Company?: On the Threshold of Robotic Companionship” (2010) in Close Engagements with Artificial Companions, edited by Yorick Wilks (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, p. 3-10).

On PAR (Participatory Action Research) and Social Design for Community Engagement [#CuriousCoLab]

Last week I moved apartments within Richmond, which really got me out of sync with the real-time schedule of the Collaborative Curiosity course. With this post I’ll reflect on my takeaways from this week’s and last week’s readings, gathering my thoughts before moving onto the last two weeks of the course.

Recall that I’m not actually designing a community-engaged research project myself; instead, I’m interested in seeing how what I learn about CEnR could be applied to teaching undergraduate service-learning courses. So I didn’t need to choose between a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) or Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology. Yet I found myself drawn to the latter, especially because articles I came across by way of the Participatory Action Research and Organizational Change site problematized what participation means in useful ways. In “Participatory Action Research as a Process and as a Goal,” Greenwood, Whyte, and Harkavy stress “the impossibility of imposing participation on the research process”; it is instead emergent in nature, and falls on a continuum with “expert research” on one end and full PAR on the other.


I could see exploring the concept of participation with my students, who would be selecting a community partner and designing a research project with the goal of having their service experience complement what they find in conventional sources. Sometimes it is a good match, sometimes not. However, the success of the pairing depends in part on how students take ownership of their service. I seek placements for students where they have the ability to design how they will contribute to their partners’ missions—independent initiatives that work in tandem with established programs these organizations already have in place. Greenwood, Whyte, and Harkavy note that there must be “participatory intent” at the outset that may be sustained by “building participatory processes into the activity within the limits set by the participants and the conditions.” The CBPR methodology seemed to me more focused on inquiring into those conditions and setting the parameters for collaboration, which requires time to develop deep relationships before arriving at the research objectives. For students in my semester-long class, it makes more sense to focus on working within constraints. That’s an idea I touch upon throughout the term. I initially encourage students to be open to discovery, but eventually they need to commit to a limited scope and to working with the information and experience they are able to gather.

The theme of my UNIV 200 course is the social construction of technology, and next year I’m going to stress design parameters—conditions, intentions, emergence—to encourage students to think more critically about technology. I have focused on communities’ access to technologies, but I believe I also should help students examine design choices and effects more closely. Eric Gordon and Jessica Baldwin-Philippi’s article on “Playful Civic Learning” through a game environment might be a great example to share with them. It was fascinating how the Community PlanIt platform encouraged players to build networks by sharing their views, which ultimately provided them with an alternate means of civic engagement. Their contributions offered researchers with one set of data, and studying how players actually took advantage of the interface was another.

Over the summer I’ve been researching social design (also known as design for social change/innovation) as another possible point of entry, with the hope that the subject might inspire students to recognize design as a heuristic for their service and research. The Civic Media Project could provide useful illustrations for discussions on social design. Gordon’s work gives me a lot to think about as I redesign my course description. I really should try to complete the statement of my theme in time to share it with the class before the Collaborative Curiosity course reaches its conclusion.

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