In a odd spate of convergence this week, my freshman students have an essay due based on the observations of writer and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, whose editorial appeared last Sunday in The New York Times. It’s Turkle’s contention in “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” that students as well as adult smartphone users should ask themselves the question, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”
Turkle uses data from a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, stating that 89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during their last social gathering, even though 82% percent of the same adults felt using them somehow took away from the conversation. Counter that with the “rule of three,” or how a group of college students Turkle interviewed handle the use of devices in social settings. While conversing with six or so people at dinner, “you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. ” The idea is you can continue to converse “but with different people having their heads up at different times.” Turkle contends that this “rule of three” tends to keep conversation light, focusing mainly on topics where people feel they can drop in and out. By following the rule, the students say, ” You never have to be bored. When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone.” But students also lamented the downside. As one college junior put it, “Our texts are fine. It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”
Yet if you’re a writer, it’s not only your conversations that are suffering. Your writing is suffering, too. Because if all your talking is fluffy and all your observations are out of Instagram, Twitter, or Google, chances are your writing is as deep and as substantive as Jell-O. I once had someone ask me why a writer would interview people when she could get the same information online. Could she? Then from where did that information spring? From the info pixies? Too many of us rely on “research” done via online, because too many don’t want to do the heavy lifting that comes with face-to-face or real world interactions. I know of one popular writer of 19th century historicals who worked around this by first writing the book, then doing a quick online fact check before submitting. This same writer had an actual book published with a scene from the 1860s that featured a telephone. You could say that a simple Google search would have corrected that in a snap. But how could it when the writer didn’t know enough about the era to know what to check?
The point is a writer needs to be observant, to turn his or her attention away from the virtual and into the world going on around them. Honing the art of observation is the first skill a writer needs to master before they could ever strike a key to start a story. Ask yourself: Is Wikipedia is the first place you turn to for research, instead of that hot history geek bartender spouting random facts as he pours your Guinness? If it is, then maybe you need to look up from Tinder instead of just sitting there swiping left.