Sherry Turkle and the virtues of empathy, courage, civility and care

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Sherry Turkle headshotFrom: https://sherryturkle.com/

“Sherry Turkle has spent the last 30 years exploring the relationship between people and technology. It’s complex. It’s ever-changing. And it affects everything – how we work and learn, how we parent and govern, and even how we love.”

Sherry Turkle obtained a BA in Social Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology and Personality Psychology at Harvard University, and joined MIT in 1976, where she works as a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. For over 30 years, she has studied people’s relationships to computers. She wrote a series of best-selling books: “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit” (1984), about how computers affect the ways in which we look at ourselves and the way we think and act, “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” (1995), about how people can go into virtual worlds, interact with others, and explore multiple identities, and “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2011), about how our obsession with devices and connectivity corrodes natural, organic, genuine communication.

In her most recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (2015), she offers a diagnosis of the problem: our obsession with devices and being always ‘on’ and connected made us forget the benefits of solitude (we’re so afraid for boredom that we fill every minute of free time staring at devices), we forgot how to connect to others (we’ve lost basic skills for making conversations, we’re avoiding ‘awkward’ conversations and thus have lost basic skills for empathy), and we forgot how to organize conversations in groups (most people are staring at their screens, in schools, in work places, etc.). In addition, she gives some practical ‘self help’ advice: to make an effort, to put your phone away, to learn to be alone, to learn to connect to others, and to learn how to foster genuine conversations. The key problem, i.e. a lack of conversations, can be solved be solved by exactly that what’s lacking, by having better conversations.

The chairs on the book’s cover are a visual reference to a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society“.

Turkle has conducted ethnographic studies with thousands of people over more than 30 years, and over the course of those years, these conversations have made her concerned. In the 1980’s computers were exciting; we could use them as tools to explore our identities. But now, in the 2010’s our tools are controlling us. These interactions moved her to want to ameliorate this situation. She is simultaneously worried, about the lack of conversation, and hopeful, about the potential of better conversations as a solution.

In her work, Turkle embodies the technomoral virtues of empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), and of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).

Moreover, through her work, she advocates cultivating the technomoral virtues of civility, which Vallor defines as “a sincere disposition … to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141), and of care, which Vallor defines as “a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (2016, p. 138). With her analysis and advice, she urges us to reclaim conversation, to cultivate the skills of conversation, for the sake of civility and humanity, as an act of care to our fellow humans. 


Possibly, you find that Sherry Turkle embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Cathy O’Neil and the virtues of honesty, justice, humility and courage

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

cathy-oneil-125-1000px

From: https://mathbabe.org/contact/

Cathy O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice, and of humility and courage. 

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at MIT, and a professor at Barnard College […] She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis […]. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene […]. She wrote “Doing Data Science” in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy“, and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

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In this book, she provides a broad range of examples of the harms that algorithms can do–intentionally or unintentionally. Very often, poor people suffer the hardest: “Promising efficiency and fairness, [these algorithms] distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy” (p. 199). She coined the term Weapons of Math Destruction, to refer to algorithms with the following characteristics: their outcomes have large effects on people’s lives and society; they work invisible and are inaccessible for scrutiny or critique; their usage tends to spread like wildfire, e.g., affecting an entire industry; and they lack proper feedback loops and checks, so that they can all too easily derail.

Existing unfairness and injustice–which, in the US, often concur with discrimination based on race, resulting in poverty and lack of opportunities–are propagated through algorithms: “Big Data codify the past.” (p. 204) […] She argues that “we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 207).

  • Her TED Talk: “The era of blind faith in big data must end

O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice. She unveils the lies surrounding algorithms and their unwarranted promises, in order to critique the injustice and unfairness they propagate and exacerbate. For her, honesty, about what math can do, and cannot do, and advocating and striving for justice go hand in hand.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of honesty as “respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately” (2016, p. 122), and justice as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of … technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how … technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

In addition, O’Neil embodies the virtues of humility and courage. Humility because she knows very well what math can do, and cannot do. She critiques many widespread practices: using invalid proxies, e.g., using people’s financial credit scores to assess risks related to driving a car and setting a price for car insurance; the lack of feedback loops, which are critical for putting a faulty algorithm, e.g., one that effectively creates random outputs, back on track; and focusing on those variables that can be quantified and data which are easily available, instead of deciding that algorithms make no sense, e.g., because the desired results are qualitative or hard to put into numbers. Moreover, she embodies courage in that she experiences both fear and hope in intelligent ways: she understands the dangers of algorithms, and she has hope that we can “disarm (p. 199) and “dismantle” (p. 202) these Weapons of Math Destruction.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of humility asa recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), and courage as a “disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).


Possibly, you find that Cathy O’Neill embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl