Sherry Turkle’s reproductive futurism

I know Sherry Turkle has plenty of critics, so maybe this is piling on. But I want to make a particular point from the perspective of childhood studies, to note how so much of Turkle’s expressed concerns are focused on parents and childrearing. Especially in her public presentations about the book, the central emotional concern she seems to expect her audience to take away is that children are being harmed. (Others do a better job than I can critiquing Turkle’s “digital dualism” problem, like when she describes “bailing out from the physical world” in the TEDx talk below, as though that were something that might be possible.)

So, for instance, in this TEDxUIUC talk from a year ago, Turkle’s examples are of parents pushing kids on the swing while texting, kids sleeping with their phones, or, in what I think is a really telling example of her style, she says (at 3:13):

Children describe that moment at school pickup, they’ll never tell you that they care, but they describe that moment where they come out of school looking for that moment of eye contact, and instead of that moment of eye contact with a parent, who after all, has shown up at school pickup, that parent is looking at the iPhone, looking at the smartphone, and is reading mail. So from the moment this generation of children met technology, it was the competition.

There’s this affective resonance here, for an audience who’s caught up in a series of stories about how the minute, everyday aspects of our lives are actually full of emotional power, and that emotional power depends heavily on the preexisting intensity of the trope of concern for children. That is, once we start talking about children, we allow ourselves — we enjoy, even — this immersion in sentiment that seems wholly commendable (how can concern for children be something to question?)

But I think Turkle use of this rhetorical approach really asks her audience to suspend their critical faculties as she goes through this list of concerning moments. Because, really? A parent reading while waiting to pick their kid up after school is creating some sort of notable emotional distance or disappointment? What if you substituted a paperback novel for the iPhone in this story? Turkle’s concern is explicitly about attention, and in situations like this a book would clearly be creating precisely the same interactional dynamic as an iPhone — i.e., preventing the parent from giving 100% attention to the possibility of their child’s appearance at the school door.

And thinking about books, I think it makes sense, here, to draw a connection to Janice Radway’s classic article about women and romance novels. In that piece, Radway talks about housewives using romance novels as a form of escape from their domestic lives. Radway describes immersive reading as being very much about transcending the physical space within the walls of a family home to enjoy a fantasy life, really, a way to “bail out from physical reality.” So if one of the 1970s midwestern stay at home mothers in Radway’s study were to drive to pick her kids up at school, and sat with her book while she waited, at least from Radway’s account, she wouldn’t just be managing boredon, she’d be actively avoiding her duties as a parent — duties which in very many cases are not, it can’t be stressed enough, always fulfilling or happy.

But in that situation, we’d never think to blame the technology of the book for preventing women from being good mothers. (On second thought this is probably only true for a narrow sense of “we,” but I expect Turkle would be part of that “we.) Instead, we have feminist tools for criticizing the situation that puts mothers in a position of needing to escape an oppressive and unfulfilling family life, and we have additional theoretical tools for thinking about how even such private, escapist reading might be a tool for building connections and community that really do counterbalance the failures of family life (Warner’s chapter on “Public and Private,” especially the discussion of the Beechers, really resonates with Radway, I think). And if someone were to argue that the problem is those darn mass market paperbacks, well, it would be hard to see that as anything other than a cynical attempt to change the subject, and to comfort the comfortable.

So, since we already have a good understanding of how exactly this dynamic of media-vs-parental-attention has played out in another context, it’s really on Turkle to argue that the issues are different (that they’re not about gender roles, about ideologies of parenting and the family, about time and money and work, etc.). Why, for instance, doesn’t Turkle ever cite Arlie Hochschild, who actually has a substantive political and sociological story about how the attention of family members is increasingly directed away from one another? And Hochschild’s story accounts for the same issues but goes back decades, so where’s Turkle get the idea that phones are too blame?

Another favorite example, from an interview Turkle did for the American Psychological Association:

One gender element that did become apparent is that mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text. Of course, in feeding an infant, so much more is going on than giving nutrition to a baby. There is the emotional exchange on the most primitive level, the feeling of gratifying someone and being gratified in return. A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely. It reminds me of something that has occurred to me often as I have done this research: Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.

So again, in remarks for a popular, educated audience, Turkle turns to concerns about failures of intimacy in families. A while back Kieth Humphreys at the blog Reality Based Community posted [updated below] a link to this interview, with the quick aside that “some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).” I and one other commenter noted that breastfeeding, while certainly intimate, can be a very tedious and time-consuming experience as well. Humphreys’s response (link doesn’t go to a comment because this whole exchange was deleted; see update) to me was “As a parent I like to know about research findings that are relevant to children’s well being, if you don’t that’s up to you of course, but this is the reality-based community … we discuss scientific findings here whether they make people feel good about themselves or not (the climate is changing too, BTW).” What’s notable is that Turkle’s comments don’t actually reflect “scientific findings” — in fact, breastfeeding doesn even appear in Alone Together, except in a discussion of robots. So, as with her TEDx talk, Turkle appeals to this concern and sense of emotional primitiveness that her audience is going to be primed for that exists around children and parenting, and she uses that to get educated audiences to suspend their critical thinking, and instead to project disapproval towards some other group of people (namely parents, which means, really, toward mothers). I single out Humphreys because I don’t want to overgeneralize about audiences, but his response is a clear example of my point: he compares my suggestion that these scholarly discourses might have an ill effect on mothers to climate denialism while using the word “science” to describe Turkle’s off-hand comments to an interviewer for a popular publication, always keeping “the well-being of children” at the forefront, as though we’re sure we know what that is and as though that trumps anyone else’s well-being.

It really seems like Turkle and Humphreys (himself a psychiatrist), seem to think that for every moment they are breastfeeding, mothers should be focusing all of their attention on this “primitive” emotional exchange, having some sort of transcendent euphoria for several hours of each day. What I find just impossible to understand is that Turkle doesn’t see right off that the expectation of having an emotionally primitive connection during every instance of breastfeeding would itself create the sort of “tension” that she worries receiving a text might create — especially because she simply worries that the tension elicited by a text message might be understood by the child as being about the child’s relationship with the mother, when the tension caused by excessive pressure not just to breastfeed (for possibly overstated health reasons), but also to have an emotional connection at the most primitive level with the child (who may just be hungry and not interested in cuddles or whatever) … that tension is bound to be interpreted as about the child, because it is about the child.

So, mothers are under extraordinary pressure to be perfect, and mothers of infants, especially, are given this impossible task of shifting happily from the particular and often exhausting work of pregnancy, to the particular and often exhausting and often alienating work of giving birth, to the particular and often exhausting and often incredibly isolating work of caring for their child. And now they’re not supposed to text their friends or family?? It’s a very similar issue with waiting for your kid at school: are parents really supposed to spend several minutes every afternoon staring at a school entrance just to make sure that the very moment their child appears there they will make eye contact and provide their child with that little nugget of emotional connection? How does Turkle’s example make sense if that’s not her prescription? From where does Turkle claim the authority to conscript what seems like the entirety of parents attention and internal lives to the emotional management of their children? Is Turkle’s goal for mothers of infants to be alone in the home with their child, cut off from the world? From her comments, the only situation that wouldn’t be concerning would seems to be a return to the world of bored housewives cut off from connection or fulfillment that Betty Friedan described. Of course she’d protest that characterization, but the direct implication of her arguments about technology distracting parents is that parents’ attention is the rightful claim of the family, regardless of the consequences for their own well-being (again, this means ipso facto that women’s lives are the rightful claim of the family). But for parents and their children, women using media (in the form of smartphones) to communicate with friends and family while they’re caring for their young children simply must be a better thing than women using media (in the form of romance novels) to escape the isolation that a particular social configuration of mothering forces on them.

At minimum, Turkle’s playing really fast and lose with childhood as a social figure that is uniquely available for affective moralizing. What this is is reproductive futurism, which in the end is a lot more about disciplining adults than it ever is about caring for dependents. The irony here is that Turkle’s earlier work held out the promise that computers might accommodate play and experimentation with non-traditional, non-normative identities and now, when she returns having changed her mind in light of new developments, her objection is not that such promise is unfulfilled, but rather that computers are disrupting traditional, heteronormative sexual and gender identities, by giving parents (mothers) connections to a world beyond the home and childcare. And that’s the problem with making arguments about technology instead of making arguments about people.

Update: Looks like a little while after this post went live the comments containing my exchange with Humphreys were all deleted, along with comments of third parties weighing in, as though to pretend the exchange never took place. That’s really unfortunate, in my view, but most of the exchange is up here and here. These comments are out of the Google Cache already, but as evidence that my comments are actually being deleted, here’s a screenshot of a more recent comment that is also missing.

2 responses to “Sherry Turkle’s reproductive futurism

  1. Pingback: The digital dualism of “digital dualism” critics | Tyler Bickford

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