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The Rule of Three

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

When you sit with a friend at lunch, do you keep your cell phone on the table? If you do, the mere presence of your phone can change the quality of the encounter.

“People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted,” writes Sherry Turkle, in her recent article “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”  “They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.” 

Translation: Topics of conversation remain shallow, fleeting, and possibly irrelevant.  Who wants to risk a novel idea or personal thought when someone at the table will receive it with a nod and then look down at her cell phone?

College students reported to Turkle, a professor of technology and social science at MIT, how they divided their attention during conversations—for example, in the dining hall. Among five or six people, etiquette demands that you check to see that at least three people are paying attention to the discussion before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone.

“So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times,” writes Turkle. “The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.”

Technology can make our lives more enriching and fruitful. But, we have to make sure that we use the technology, and not vice versa. It seems to me that the “rule of three” represents the latter—people so enslaved to their phones that they’ll give up human interaction for a witty text message, a silly video, or a newsfeed about Donald Trump. 

Individuals, schools, businesses, and others must be careful with technology—to use it but not embrace it—because, frankly, it’s better to embrace a flesh-and-blood human being.