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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Maybe we need to hang up ... and be

Louis CK is a comic who tends to capture things, and in a few words recently he capsulized what an MIT professor, researcher and author conveyed in a 1,600-word New York Times oped. Our phones are wrecking our ability to be real.

“These things are toxic — especially for kids,” the comedia said in a recent conversation on Conan O’Brien’s show. “You need to build an ability to be yourself, and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away — the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.” The extreme example, he noted, is how many people are texting while driving: “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, because they don’t want to be alone for a second.”

This is also the gist of “Stop Googling, Let’s Talk,” a Sept. 26 Times essay by Sherry Turkle, who was herself distilling the findings in her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle studies this stuff, and she asks: “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”

Needless to say, “so many people” includes nearly all young people, as pretty much anyone — especially us exasperated/screened-out/resigned parents — can observe. “Our texts are fine,” a college junior told Turkel. “It’s what texting does to our conversations when we’re together that’s the problem.”

This is pretty much obvious to anyone who tries to have a conversation with a phone-addicted teenager; and research is finding that the impacts go deep. A 2010 analysis by a University of Michigan team, Turkel writes, “put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.”

Then comes what Turkel calls a “crucial connection: The capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude.”

“That’s what the phones are taking away — the ability to just sit there,” says Louis CK. "That’s being a person.”

It is, and this is not just an issue among young people. I do not text while driving — the bad scrape along the side of my car, from when I tried to text while driving in a blizzard, reminds me that I’m lucky to be alive after doing that once. But when I’m driving somewhere that takes a while, I have to ration myself: I can only check my messages online every 30 minutes. Otherwise I’ll do it every three or four.

It’s not that I’ve got such important stuff coming in — it’s that I don’t want to just sit there. Like sirens luring us toward the rocks, our phones beckon constantly with distraction from what might be the deepest human fear (along with public speaking, plus dreaming that you’re back in high school and you forgot your pants ... and okay, death): the terror of being alone. And quiet. With ourselves.

And I even meditate. I’ve been sitting, on and off, in the morning for years — but still that fear is nearly always there. I’m quite sure nobody expected or predicted that cell phones, smart phones, would be toxic in this way, but it turns out they are. It’s a powerful, dangerous dependency that we’re all developing, or that we already have in full bloom.

“We face a significant choice,” Turkel writes in the Times. “It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention. Conversation is there for us to reclaim. For the failing connections of our digital world, it is the talking cure.”

But it’s not just conversation. It’s being able to be human — to be empathic, to be observant, to be receptive. To just sit here. It's for this that all addictions, including this new one, are a desperate and failing substitute.

And it leaves me wondering: are we evolving, with all our technology? Or is just our technology that's evolving, while we divide ourselves, distract ourselves, and fade in the opposite direction?

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