Even before the pandemic, MIT professor Sherry Turkle was studying the effects of technology on interpersonal connections – and raising warnings about how our culture was adapting. Her books “Alone Together” and “Life on the Screen” eerily foreshadow how remote work and life evolved throughout the pandemic.

Lately, Turkle has turned her attention toward the concept of empathy, the center of her most recent work, “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.”

Empathy, she says, promotes better connection and flexibility but is firmly at odds with most corporate structures. “The prime directive in business is to create a world that’s friction-free,” says Turkle. “But empathy is not friction-free. It’s filled with friction. It’s tearful, it’s difficult, it’s painful — because things that somebody tells you about themselves can cause you to question who you are. So for a business to really embrace the empathic understanding of employees and clients, they have to be willing to change their culture and embrace friction within their organization.”

Scroll down for the transcript and watch the full conversation here:


John Battelle: Welcome to another Signal Conversation. I’m very excited about this one because my guest is Sherry Turkle – the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé professor of the social studies of science and technology in the program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT, and a founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She’s the author of many thought-provoking books, almost all of which I have read — I would say consumed really — and she’s one of my favorite authors on the subjects of technology, human psychology, and its impact on our lives. She’s an expert on culture, therapy, mobile technology, social networking and social robotics. 

We’re going to get into all of that, but first, we’re going to start with her recently published memoir, The Empathy Diaries, which ties together her personal story with groundbreaking research that she’s done on technology, empathy and ethics. So, Sherry, welcome. It’s so good to have you here. 

Sherry Turkle: It’s so good to be here.

I read the review of your book in the New York Times, and I was gobsmacked for you – it’s very rare to get such a rave. So, congratulations. Can you explain why it is that you chose to center this work, an interweaving of your personal story with your research, on the term “empathy”?

Well, one of the findings of my most recent work about our lives on the screen is that it has constituted a kind of assault on empathy. Because if you’re looking down at your screen, if children are looking down at their screens and not making eye contact, from the earliest stages, they’re not being trained to do this wonderful, simplest things that humans know how to do, which is to make eye contact to connect and read other people’s faces, and to have this relationship, where you really can put yourself in the place of the other, and experience that, and therefore form a relationship. And so it was because empathy had become so central to my work, it had become kind of a calling. And I realized there was so much in my background, in my personal background, that had emotionally prepared me to not just do this work as a job, but really to do this work as a calling, and I wanted to tell that story behind the story. I think that researchers don’t do that enough, to say why their work is a passion. And so this book is really about why my work is my passion.

And in a way that’s an expression of empathy. You’re allowing us to have a personal relationship with you. In one of the interviews that I listened to in preparation for this, you mentioned that you felt there was sort of an incomplete definition of empathy, that sometimes people feel like they’ve checked a box, they’ve heard you. Boom — they’ve been empathetic and now they can move on. Can you explain that a little more because I then want to turn that to business – it really reminds me of how a lot of us interact with each other as colleagues at work.

Yes, empathy has gotten a bad name. Whereas really empathy is not saying I know how you feel. It’s saying, I don’t know how you feel. But I’m listening, and I’m here for the long haul. And I’m committed to whatever comes out of this conversation. What does it take for the people, for management and for employees among each other, to really listen to each other, and to really make a commitment to what they hear, to really be willing to hear what they hear. So what I’m looking for is taking empathy out of a kind of cliché box, and really saying, it’s not just putting yourself in somebody else’s place, it’s putting yourself in somebody else’s problem. And I think that’s central for business.

How could a deeper understanding of empathy change how a business functions for the better?

Well, the first thing is that businesses — kind of the prime rule and the prime directive in engineering and in business is to create a world that’s friction-free; as friction-free as possible. Empathy is not friction-free. It’s filled with friction, when you really have a conversation with somebody where you’re really getting into it. It’s tearful, it’s difficult, it’s painful, because things that somebody tells you about themselves cause you to question who you are. So for a business to really embrace the empathic understanding of employees and clients, they have to be willing to change their culture, to embrace friction within their organization. And so that really is part of what my emphasis on empathy says to the business community, which is, what will it take for your organization to embrace friction, to not run from it as though it’s the worst thing that happened to your culture?

Right, right. Now, when I think about what’s happened in the past 18 months, both through the lens of your work and through the lens of what we’ve been discussing, it strikes me that we’ve had, could have been the greatest Sherry Turkle research project ever, your works almost could be codas for the pandemic. One was called Alone Together, another Life on the Screen. Those two titles define how people have been working, particularly in white collar knowledge worker jobs, for the past 18 months. Do you find that companies and businesses in your experience have been empathetic to the position that people are in living on a screen 12 hours or more a day? Are companies empathetic to that? Because it strikes me that managers and executives are of course doing the same thing. Or is there something that you’ve noticed that maybe we could learn about this that we could carry forward?

Well, I think we’re sort of stumbling, we’re all stumbling towards how are we going to be more empathetic. I think that in a moment of shock, that the first impulse was, you know, everybody retreats, everybody hides and everybody does the best they can. And I think you see that companies were not empathic, in the fact that so many women, for example, have dropped out of the workforce, because they simply could not take care of their families and do remote work. Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean that you’re not working, which is something that we’ve all learned. And yet, women took on the brunt of educating, of child care, of elder care, of often taking care of one or two ill relatives. I mean it was a very difficult time. Now, corporations did not really rise to the occasion in this environment. And now, I think you see — again this relates to my theme of, do you want your company to be friction-free — will you accept friction? You get a sort of, now we’re going to go back to normal as a sort of mythology, or a sort of hope for mythology, or, you know, an image of what’s going to happen. And I think that’s really the wrong metaphor. I think now was an opportunity for not just individuals but corporations to rethink what kind of new culture we can build on the basis of what we’ve learned; that different people are different, different families are different, different cultures are different. Different communities are different. 

I think now’s the time for a lot of flexibility. And that is really running up against the first instinct of corporations, which is to make rules. These people wear masks. These people don’t wear makeup. And I think, I think it’s really a moment of reckoning. It’s too soon to tell exactly how it’s gonna go because I think people are making a lot of false steps, and then kind of saying well no. That was realizing that was the first step. So I think the jury’s still out. But I think now really is the time to rethink that we can have a more flexible, corporate environment going forward, an environment that’s more open to uncertainty, which is really not the corporate culture that we’ve built. You know, where you build in uncertainty. So I think that some of the mandates for how things are going to be in the new normal are not helping out now.

Sherry Turkle, thank you so much for joining us for this Signal Conversation. I look forward to continuing to read your work and converse with you.

Thank you. My pleasure.