Is this the death of conversation?
Connectedness in the digital age is often mistaken for true dialogue and listening
by Simon Jenkins
3 May 2012
I first noticed it in a restaurant. The place was strangely quiet and at one table a group seemed deep in prayer. Their heads were bowed, their eyes hooded and their hands in their laps.
I then realised that every one, young and old, was gazing at a hand-held phone.
People strolled the street outside likewise, with arms crooked at right angles, necks bent in crippling postures. Mothers with babies were doing it. Students in groups were doing it. They were like zombies on call.
There was no conversation.
Every visit to California convinces me that the digital revolution is over, by which I mean it is won. Everyone is connected.
The New York Times recently declared the death of conversation. While mobile phones may at last be falling victim to etiquette, this is largely because even talk is considered too intimate a contact. No such bar applies to emailing, texting, posting and tweeting. It is ubiquitous, the ultimate connectivity, the brain wired full-time to infinity.
MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle claims that her students are close to mastering the art of sustaining eye contact with a person while texting someone else. It is like an organist playing different tunes with hands and feet.
ALONE TOGETHER, A TRIBE OF ONE
To Dr Turkle, these people are "alone together ... a tribe of one".
The audience in a New York theatre now sit with lit machines in their laps, looking to the stage occasionally but mostly tapping away. The same happens at lectures, in coffee bars and on jogging tracks.
Psychologists have identified this as "fear of conversation". The Internet connects us to the entire world, but it is a world bespoke, edited, deleted, sanitised.
Doubt and debate become trivial because every statement can be instantly verified or denied by Google. There is no time for the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of Socratic dialogue, the skeleton of true conversation.
There is now apparently a booming demand for online "conversation" with robots. Mobiles come loaded with customised "girlfriends".
People turn to computerised dating advisers, even claim to fall in love with their GPS guides. A robot seal can be bought to sit and listen to elderly people talk, tilting its head and blinking in sympathy.
We have, says Dr Turkle, confused connection with conversation - "the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship".
Human friendship is rich, messy and complicated. It requires patience and tolerance, even compromise. As we push other people off into a world of question and answer, connection and information, friendship becomes ersatz virtuality.
Even the phone is passe. Those who used to call a friend in trouble now send a text. Phone calls are to register urgency or shout anger, with corresponding loss of nuance and sensibility. From Norman Mailer to Eminem, the modern cultural hero is expressionist. He or she has "attitude" and, to prove it, uses the F-word as often as possible.
Writer Stephen Miller notes that public discourse is dominated by contention, by "intersecting monologues". Anger, lack of inhibition, "letting it all hang out" are treated as assets in public debate, in place of a willingness to listen and adjust one's point of view.
Politics thus becomes a platform of rival angers. American politicians are ever more polarised, reduced to conveying a genuine hate for each other.
Likewise, the lack of tolerance in American Christianity can be as frightening as in Islam. When I once professed support for in vitro fertilisation, a man glared across the table, tight-jawed, and asked: "What does it feel like to be a mass murderer?" With such people there is no conversation, only a tip-toeing from the room.
QUALITIES OF A CIVILISED LIFE
All that said, the death of conversation has been announced as often as that of the book.
Samuel Johnson and David Hume worried the decline of political conversation would lead to civil discord. George Orwell concluded "the trend of the age was away from creative communal amusements and towards solitary mechanical ones". Somehow we have muddled through.
The "post-digital" phenomenon, the craving for live experience, is showing a remarkable vigour. The US is a place of ever greater congregation and migration, to parks, beaches, festivals, ball games, religious rallies. Affinity groups seek escape from the digital dictatorship, using Facebook and Twitter not as destinations but as portals to human contact.
A hundred online universities are no substitute for a live campus any more than Facebook is a substitute for sex or Twitter for debate. Gatherings such as the Burning Man and Coachella arts festivals have revived the mediaeval pilgrimage, with tens of thousands crossing mountains and deserts to commune with like-minded souls. They talk. They even converse.
Somewhere in this cultural morass I am convinced the zest for human contact will preserve the qualities that Plato and Plutarch, Johnson and Hume identified as essential for a civilised life, qualities of listening and courtesy.
Those obsessed with faddish connectivity and personal avoidance are not escaping reality. They are not TS Eliot's misanthropic Prufrock, "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas". Deep down they still crave friendship. They just want a better class of talk.