A persistent fear in late modern life is that, for all their benefits, the introduction of various forms of technology into social life will leave us more estranged from one another. If, as Phillip Blond has said, loneliness is the modern human condition, and if handheld technologies promise to make us more connected to one another, can they deliver on this promise?

This week, we present three pieces on the challenges to personal connection in modern social life, as well as one on the role of creativity in the workplace.

Author and MIT clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle appeared twice in the pages of The New York Times this past weekend. First, the Sunday Review published an adaptation from Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In this short piece, Turkle argues that what is fundamentally under threat in a society saturated with personal technology is the practice of conversation. Conversation, Turkle claims, is the first step in a movement towards “unitasking”—that is, being fully attentive to a single task. “Multitasking comes with its own high,” she tells us, “but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.”

Second, Jonathan Franzen’s review of Turkle’s book shows that the benefits of unitasking extend beyond the creative productivity unleashed by sustained and focused attention. As Franzen has it, “when you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins.” Hence, if our objective is a more just, humane, and empathic social order, ridding ourselves of distraction in order to more properly attend to others will be necessary.

But handheld devices aren’t the only sources of pervasive distraction we face. As Matthew Crawford has recently argued, the public spaces we move through every day—airports, public buses, schools—have become increasingly cluttered with advertisements, all vying for control of a precious and limited resource: our attention. As Crawford reflects during a visit to an airport, “the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower.” The effect, he claims, is the loss of “the public space required for sociability”—a key feature of which is silence. As he puts it in this brief piece for The New York Times:

The benefits of silence are off the books. They are not measured in the gross domestic product, yet the availability of silence surely contributes to creativity and innovation. They do not show up explicitly in social statistics such as level of educational achievement, yet one consumes a great deal of silence in the course of becoming educated.

This line of thought, along with Crawford’s intriguing concept of an “attentional commons,” is extended throughout Crawford’s recently published book, The World Beyond Your Head.

The final piece in this week’s briefing addresses one of the real challenges of the creativity that silence creates space for. A fascinating study recapped in the Harvard Business Review provides an account of how to work alongside those who consider themselves “artists”—in any number of professional fields. While acknowledging the obvious benefits of individuality, its cost, the researchers argue, is often control: due to their high level of personal investment, creative types can seem incapable of separating themselves from the products they create. While this may ultimately be fruitful, it presents a unique set of management challenges, and the tactics the authors provide for negotiating them are illuminating.


Editorial note: Please join New City Commons in congratulating Culture Briefing editor, Philip Lorish, and his wife on the birth of their son! Next week’s introductory article will be guest-written.