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In his review of Sherry Turkles book, Reclaiming Conversation, the novelist Jonathan Franzen points out that it is a call to arms. Franzen writes, Conversation is Turkles organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication and Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/books/review/jonathan-franzen-reviews-sherry-turkle-reclaiming-conversation.html). Analogous to the assignment for paper #3, this assignment asks you to elaborate on a set of arguments advanced in Turkles book either to support and strengthen Turkles arguments, or to argue against her.

To accomplish this assignment you will need not only to understand Turkles arguments, but also to analyze how she makes those arguments. What about Turkles writing makes her a strong advocate for the views she advances in Reclaiming Conversation?

According to Franzen, Turkles argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. I agree that some of Turkles rhetorical power comes from the evidence she parlays from the interviews she has conducted. But a close reading of any chapter of the book shows that citing her interviews is only one among several techniques she employs to substantiate her claims.

For example, sometimes she does not explicitly cite one of her interviewees, but claims more broadly that people tell me Laced throughout her book are citations to articles from the literature of social science (including from the fields of psychology, communications, psychiatry), brain science, and philosophy. She also relies on the popular science retold in news articles by journalists. This assemblage of very different citations are deployed, by Turkle, to make claims about we and you and broad categories of people much larger in size than the number of people she has interviewed and bigger than the groups studied by the researchers she cites.

For instance, she makes claims about what college students do or do not do, what they think, and how they handle their mobile devices. Her rhetorical skill is to give a small amount of anecdotal evidence or obliquely touch on a scientific article and then convincingly make claims about you and all of us and how digital media is harming the everyday institutions of the self, the family, work, romance, and public discourse. How does she do this in a convincing manner? How could it be done better? Or, how might one argue against the rhetoric she deploys for the class she makes?

Just a reminder: I use the term rhetoric as a term of art, not as it is usually used in everyday conversation to dismiss an argument as inflated or false. Rhetoric, in the academic sense, is simply a description of the means a speaker or writer uses to make their argument. In a nutshell, what I am asking for you to do is read Turkles text closely paying attention to both what her arguments are and her rhetoric, i.e., how she makes her arguments.

What to do

Turkles book is organized a specific passage from philosopher Henry David Thoreaus book Walden (1854) in the chapter Visitors where he writes, I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. Remember this is the same Thoreau who also wrote, We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

Thoreaus chairs are partly physical, partly metaphorical insofar as they refer to several social institutions: solitude, friendship, and society. Turkle uses the chairs to stand in for a similar set of social institutions: the self, family, friends, work, and the public. She also includes a fourth chair which she reserves for the activity/institution of talking to machines. For Turkle, the backbone of all of these institutions is the the set of recurrent conversations that people participate in to create and maintain family, friendship, etc.

For this paper, I would like you to (a) pick one of these social institutions; (b) closely read the chapter or chapters Turkle devotes to the institution and summarize the arguments Turkle makes about the institution and the influences digital media has on the institution; (c) gather all of the citations and evidence she brings to bear; (d) collect the words and phrasings she uses (the rhetorical devices she employs) to make her arguments; and (e) critique Turkles rhetorical means her citations, her phrasings, etc. and either use your critique to argue against her, or to strengthen her argument.

The end result of your work should read like a review of Turkles book, a close reading, a critique of her book with special emphasis on one of the set of conversations/institutions/chairs she examines in her book.

 

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