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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Yuval Noah Harari and the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy

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.

From: https://www.bookspot.nl/auteurs/yuval-noah-harari

Yuval Noah Harari embodies the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy.

Harari is a historian and a storyteller. He is known for his bestseller books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

In Sapiens, he tells the story of how humans created subjective reality: things that objectively do not exist, but which come into being because groups of people believe in them. This allowed humans to build pyramids and empires, and invent money and the rule of law.

In Homo Deus he tells the story of how we are merging infotech and biotech: integrating computers in our bodies and delegating human tasks to computers. We are, unintentionally and unconsciously, ushering in the age of data. It is unclear what role will be left for us, people.

In passing, he debunks humanistic handholds like the soul (sorry, doesn’t exist; we’re animals, just like other animals), free will (sorry, doesn’t exist; it’s either determined or random) and consciousness (sorry, not really special; probably some by-product of thinking).

He zooms-out, to paint broad brushstrokes, spanning thousands of years, and he zooms-in, on details in daily lives and experiences. His putting of things, both large and small, into one story exemplifies the technomoral virtue of perspective, whichShannon Vallor defines as “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149).

Some find Harari’s books as dystopian. Everything is only a social construct. There’s no soul, no free will, nothing special about consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence is on a collision course with us, humans. I don’t share this interpretation. I read and hear humility and empathy in his books and talks.

Harari exemplifies the virtue of humility, which Vallor defines as “a recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), in that he debunks humanity’s illusions of superiority and mastery.

Harari exemplifies 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), in his urge to treat our fellow animals less cruel.

This follows from his debunking of humanity’s superiority. He sees no good reasons to torture and kill cows, pigs and chicken, fellow animals with feelings and intelligence not similar to ours. Unsurprisingly, Harari’s diet is vegan. In addition, he uses our treatment of animals as a cautionary tale for how cruelly some future so-called superior life form may, one day, treat us …

Finally, it’s worth noting two more things about Harari’s personal life, which he explicitly relates to his professional work.

He is a committed practitioner of Vipassana meditation. He explains that this helps him to quiet the deluge of random thoughts and daydreams, and to focus on reality. Professionally, this has helped him to focus on what really matters, on the big picture–extremely handy when you write about Big History.

And Harari is gay. He explains that his experience of being gay has helped him to distinguish between man-made phantasies, like “homosexuality is evil”, and natural phenomena, like “many fellow animals behave homosexually”. And, obviously and logically, to dismiss the former and embrace the latter.


Possibly, you find that Yuval Noah Harari 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

Kate Raworth and the virtues of justice, perspective and empathy

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. p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

kateraworth

From: https://www.greenbelt.org.uk/artists/kate-raworth/

Kate Raworth embodies the virtue of justice. She calls for a new paradigm in economics: “to meet the needs of all, within the boundaries of our living planet”.

She calls herself a renegade economist focused on exploring the economic mindset needed to address the 21st century’s social and ecological challenges. She was educated as an economist and became increasingly critical about the dominant economic paradigm of growth. Her career has taken her from working with micro-entrepreneurs in the villages of Zanzibar to co-authoring the Human Development Report for UNDP in New York, followed by a decade as Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

She is the creator of Doughnut Economics:

Doughnut

The shape of the doughnut–two concentric circles–visualizes the area where we would need to be in order “to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer

There is a parallel between Kate Raworth’s work and Shannon Vallor’s discussion of the technomoral virtue of justice. Vallor defines this virtue as a “disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128). Indeed, Raworth advocates seeking a just distribution of benefits and risks–mainly in relation to economic processes, and not specifically or explicitly regarding emerging technologies (as far as I am aware; although I did find a series of five design workshops in 2018, by Dutch media lab Waag Society, based on her work). It would be obvious, to me, however, that care for people and for our planet is a necessary precondition for further deliberations about developing and using technologies

Moreover, Kate Raworth champions the virtues of perspective and empathy.

Perspective, because she wants to (literally) change our perspective on economics. By default, we currently have in our minds a picture of a curve going up (see screenshot below). She wants us to look radically differently at the world and at economics.

growth.png

From https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-shorts/2014/03/Kate-Raworth-on-Growth

That is why she drew the Doughnut shape. That is why she collaborated with stop-motion animators to make these ideas visual in short and attractive animations. She understands the power of visuals in shaping people’s conceptions. Vallor defined the technomoral virtue of perspective as “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). Indeed, Raworth invites us to look at the world holistically and through a moral pair of glasses, so that we can the relationships between people, planet and profit.

And from her commitment to justice also follows her championing of the virtue of empathy. Raworth urges us to empathize with other people, also on the other side of the globe, and how our lives and economic behaviours affect their lives. Moreover, she calls for action, to change our behaviours. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of empathy: a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133).


Possibly, you find that Kate Raworthembodies 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