The End Of Conversation?


Obviously, I’m an internet-phile. What I love about it, both in my work as a philosophy professor and in my personal life, is the information it puts at my fingertips, and the ability it gives me to keep in touch with people. That is what most people love about it, no doubt. But I’m hoping that the technology continues to evolve, because at this point it doesn’t even allow for something as basic as a good conversation (Skype and other audio/video chatting services aside).

I know of families in which a parent will be in one room, a child in another, and instead of talking to each other, they will instant message each other. In my classes, I occasionally see students obsessively “typing” instant messages, instead of making any effort to add to (or even to follow) the face-to-face discussion. More importantly, many seem less interested than students once might have been in debating important issues, or even in forming an opinion on them… Could it be that they fear the mass social ostracism with which any dissenting opinion is met in the echo-chambers of the political blogs? Or in this world of media distraction, have they simply lost the ability to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes?

Our current technology is very good for one-way communications. Either one is transmitting information, or one is receiving it. And these discrete transactions can be done on a massive scale, as twitter has proven. One can post on blogs, and sometimes receive a response to a question or comment in a few minutes, or a few hours. But I’m afraid that the richer experience of real-time face-to-face communication, where spontaneous give-and-take comes to fore, and one must think – and feel – on one’s feet, is suffering badly.

2 thoughts on “The End Of Conversation?

  1. There was a great article in the Atlantic a few months back about how the technology for communication impacts our brains, and how surprisingly quickly we are able to re-wire ourselves to handle the technology, but not without impact (both good and bad) on the thought process itself. It touched on the printing press of course, and how when the typewriter became commonplace, it started to impact the style of various authors who had previously written in long hand. I’d send you the article, but it’s on my Kindle (is there an emoticon for irony??) The author talked about how difficult it had become for him to read lengthy, deep articles when in the past as a grad student, he’d done it with ease. He attributes that to the effect that the Web has had, and all of its distractions. Anything more than a paragraph or two, and we’re onto something else.

    Perhaps the predictions of the science fiction writers of a symbiotic relationship between computers and humans are destined to come true. We’ll all wind up wired together as “cells” in some larger brain, each of us dispensable individually, but somehow adding to the collective. Maybe the Borg had it right after all.

    And here I sit reading your blog when I should be focusing on my students…

  2. John-

    Here’s a possible emoticon for irony (at least when ‘irony’ is used to mean ‘saying the opposite of what one means’ – not quite how you were using it). )-:-)

    There are already philosophical views – one recently put forth in a paper by David Chalmers and Andy Clark – suggesting that technology literally expands the boundaries of the mind. I’m not sure I buy that literal view, but there’s no doubt that it’s at least figuratively true.

    My concern is that even if it expands the mind, currently available technology shrinks communicative intimacy. There’s more and more shallow chit chat (email, IMs, tweets), leaving significantly less time for human interaction (where ‘human’ means, first and foremost, a kind of animal) – the sort of interaction where you can use and develop “mind-reading” or “emotion-reading” skills. The best writers can communicate emotions and other attitudes through word choice, but many of today’s high school graduates have a surprisingly hard time writing a grammatical sentence. I’m hoping that their ability to communicate in person is not similarly atrophying.

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