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In the current feel-good film, "The Intern," Ben, (Robert De Niro) brings several kinds of wisdom to the hyperactive and richly successful CEO (Jules/ Ann Hathaway) and her staff at a startup e-commerce firm.  One Gen-C'er to profit from Ben's advice is Jason, played by Adam DeVine.

 Jason's problem is one that faces millions of media multitaskers when they discover that some really important things can't be done on screens.

Jason can't figure out how to apologize effectively to Becky, Jules' assistant whom he wants to date.  "I've texted her, like, a hundred times, and she won't return any of them!" Jason whines.  Ben quietly asks, "Have you tried talking with her?"

Ignoring him, Jason responds, "I even put together a really good email!  In the subject line I put a bunch of o's, so it said 'Sooooooo Soooorrry'!  She won't even look at me!"

Again, Ben asks if he's considered saying something to her.  This advice has no impact.

Later in the film, Ben and Jason are at Becky's desk when she's in the middle of a major melt-down over Jules' unwillingness to give her serious responsibilities.  Jason is shifting from one leg to the other like a bumbling geek until Ben gestures for him to give Becky a comforting hug. Then Ben quietly says something like, "It'll be all right," and Jason picks up on the hint and repeats it.  Ben offers some sage advice and Jason follows up with "You do sooo much," and "I could offer my own take on this  In fact, I would love to."  As she gets all this spoken support, Becky almost melts into Jason's arms  (I told you it was a feel-good flick.).

In these scenes, the film's writers effectively showed how screen-dependence can cripple  basic interpersonal skills.  Jason's mind-set about romantic relationships is that they're all about Tweeting, texting, Instagrams, and, if absolutely necessary, e-mail.  He seems to have no sense of the power of face-to-face talk and no ability to do it. The scene adds to the mildly funny quality of the movie, and it also points to a disability that afflicts hundreds of thousands of male and female screen slaves.

In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, instant messages, and snapchats—simultaneous, rapid-fire “sips” of online communication—have replaced face-to-face conversation, and that this harms our ability to have valuable face-to-face conversations, “the most human thing we do.” 

Turkle's research documents children begging their parents to put down their phones at dinner, and people feeling neglected as their friends put conversations “on pause” to disappear into their smartphones. Turkle’s central diagnosis: “We turn to our phones instead of each other,” in friendships, in families, in romantic relationships, and at work.

Brain scientists tell us that we're all hard-wired for both impersonal and personal connections with everything around us.  Screens push us mainly in impersonal directions, which means that we risk losing the capacity for empathy that helps make us human.  This is what's at risk culturally.

At the local level, a national survey revealed that people had powered-up phones present in over 80% of their face-to-face conversations, and 82% of them believed that the screens hurt the conversation more often than they help.  The next time you put a conversation "on pause" to fiddle with your smartphone, the chances are very good that your conversation partner is feeling pushed aside.  Just as you probably are when it happens to you.

Digital habits are too well-established and smartphones are too useful to return to any pre-screen era.  But you can establish screen-free spaces, like during meals with others, in business meetings, at funerals, church, or worship events.  Over 90% of the peoplw in the PEW survey agreed that these should be sacred.

You also really don't want to let the personal parts of your brain dry up from lack of use.  These are what empower you to really "get into" a piece of music--to move your body with it, let it happen to you, really be transformed.  These are also what enable you to feel-with another person, to get outside your own world and inhabit parts of the world of a man--if you're a woman--or a person who's different from you in some other significant way.  And this experience of personal relating can be as illuminating as getting caught up in a film or play, visiting a well-done museum, or taking a trip to another country.  You get to discover Otherness, and very little can be more exciting, fun, and life-enhancing.

You want to be more like a robot or a fully human person?  Turkle is not the first smart person who's said that face-to-face conversation is "the most human thing we do."  

You've heard it here before, and you'll hear it again:  Nothing is more important to the quality of our lives than our relationships, and nothing is more important to our relationships than how we listen and speak with each other.

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