Connection is not conversation

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 everyone, young and old, was gazing at a hand-held phone. People strolled the street outside likewise, 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. Cellphones may at last be falling victim to etiquette, but 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.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at Massachussetts Institute of Technology, claims 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. To Turkle, these people are “alone together … a tribe of one”.

Members of a New York theatre audience now sit with lit machines in their laps, looking at the stage occasionally, but mostly tapping away. The same happens at lectures, in coffee bars and on jogging tracks. Children are apparently developing a dexterity in their thumbs unknown since the evolution of the giant sloth. Talk is reduced to the muttered, heads-down expletives brilliantly satirised in the BBC’s Twenty Twelve.

Fear of conversation
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 and synthesis of Socratic dialogue, the skeleton of true conversation.

There is now apparently a booming demand for online “conversation” with robots. Cellphones come loaded with customised “girlfriends”. People turn to computerised dating advisers, even claim to fall in love with their global positioning system  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 Turkle, confused connection – “the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship” – with conversation. 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.

In his book about the history of conversation, Stephen Miller points out that “most Americans are nowadays concerned more with improving their sex life than their conversation life”. Even the phone is passé. Those who used to call a friend in trouble now send a text. Phone calls are to register urgency or shout anger, with a corresponding loss of nuance and sensibility.

A craving for live experience
Public discourse is dominated by “intersecting monologues”. Anger, a lack of inhibition, “letting it all hang out” take the place of a willingness to listen and adjust one’s point of view. Politics thus becomes a platform of rival anger. United States politicians are ever more polarised, reduced to conveying a genuine hate for each other.

All that said, the death of conversation has been announced as often as that of the book. Samuel Johnson and David Hume worried that the decline of political conversation would lead to civil discord. George Orwell concluded that “the trend of the age was away from creative communal amusements and toward solitary mechanical ones”. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott professed he wished to “rescue the art of conversation”. 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.

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 – listening and courtesy. Those obsessed with connectivity and personal avoidance are not escaping reality. Deep down they still crave friendship. They just want a better class of talk. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Simon Jenkins
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