Conversation? I Think Not

April 23, 2012

In my dead tree edition of the New York Times, I read “The Flight from Conversation” by an MIT professor and author. The newspaper put the story on page one of the Sunday Review section with a jump to pages six and seven. The online version was visible to me this morning (April 23, 2012) as “Opinion. The Flight from Conversation.” I am never sure which New York Times story will be available to whom or for how long, so you are on your own if you get a 404 or a begging for dollars screen.

What I know is that “conversation” is idealized in today’s thumb typing world. Defining conversation is useful. Holding a conversation is getting to be an exercise in human interaction archaeology.

Does this Thomas Kinkade painting represent a real place? Does discourse today provide “conversation” or an idealized notion of give and take among and between individuals?

Straight away let me say that I found the write up interesting because it was chock full of “hooks”. I had a boss at Booz, Allen & Hamilton in the days when the firm had a pretty good reputation for management and technology consultant. This particular manager collected “hook phrases,” which he hoped to use in his reports, speeches, and his various writings. On my first pass through the Flight article I noted these keepers:

  • Devices change what we do and who we are
  • Turn desks into cockpits
  • The Goldilocks [sic] effect
  • Put ourselves on cable news
  • Automatic listeners
  • Confuse conversation with connection
  • Illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship
  • New devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved
  • Device free zones
  • Casual Fridays and conversational Thursdays

Quite a payload. Upon reviewing my collection of hooks from the essay, the author should be working for CNN or CNBC.

The key point of the write up is that instead of engaging in conversation, the thumb typing generation likes being with people and being online. I agree. The notion of checking email in the middle of a face to face conversation with a person at KY Fry or lunch chatter at a trade show often warrants some digital supplements. I get paid to attend to trade shows, but not even money can cut through the marketing blather, the pitches from consultants looking for work, and speakers who are nervous about giving a talk which will avoid controversy, make a good impression, and sell someone something.

My concern is not about the essay. The anomie of modern society has been an idea kicking around since I experienced college lectures from razor sharp academics. I started thinking about the assumptions on which the essay rests. For example, how easy is it at MIT or any big name university focused on funding, start ups, and getting faculty to function as magnets which pull cash for chairs to get faculty to make themselves available for students who want a conversation? Are those office hours real or the academic equivalent of vaporware?

On Sunday, April 22, 2012, I spoke with the director of a for profit educational institution. I learned that the institution will be embracing iPads. Students can arrive at a location, check out an iPad, and work through the lesson. There is a “teacher”, but the teacher answers questions as the students do their lessons. A test is on the iPad, so there is no grading or one-on-one reviews required for most class room work. The education provider is a for-fee outfit and it works with the children of financially secure parents whose progeny are not able to read at grade level, do math, or write a grammatically acceptable sentence. The for fee school is booming, and it is thriving because parents with money have potential losers on their hands. The fix is not a conversation; the fix is more gizmos.

Thus, the institution of education may be part of the problem. The New York Times’s op-ed piece uses quite a few young people in the illustration. Maybe there is no connection between the academic’s analysis and the art? But if a conversation is appropriate, should the author’s institution adopt some old-fashioned conversational methods? Perhaps it does? In my one visit to MIT, I did not have any experiences which were conversational in the sense of Boswell and Johnson hanging out at a club in London in the 18th century. I haven’t been in university for 40 years, and I don’t recall it being a conversational cyclone. Maybe my memory is clouded or my experiences were out of the norm.

Another assumption is that a “conversation” is understood by me. I think this is a flawed assumption. I am not sure what a conversation is? I work alone and have for about 45 years. No one has hired me because I a veritable cornucopia of optimism, bon mots, or empathetic listening. The folks who evidence these skills are sales professionals, politicians, stand up comedians, and professional entertainers.

I have tried to think back to an 18th century London type of conversation which would exist because of the wit and wisdom of the participants, the participants access to movers and shakers, or to an audience for the literate in 18th century London. In most of my interactions in university, an expert like JJ Campbell of Chaucer fame would talk at me or us in the group. In business, the confident often dominate a conversation, not because they know more or have wisdom but because when there is uncertainty, I listen. When I talk with my friends, it is usually about something unrelated to my professional interests. When I talk with colleagues, we talk shop which is usually little more than gossip about how one company or executive is trying to generate revenue, fight off a competitor, or flee a sinking ship. In my experience, the “art” of conversation has been an endangered species for a long time.

One other assumption troubled me upon reading the essay. There is a suggestion that the author realizes that technology may not have a fix. But technology forms the warp and woof of the argument itself. The message that comes through to me is that at MIT, arguably a bastion of technology because the word “technology” is in the name of the institution and the source of the author’s professional identity. What we have is a single voice pleading for conversation at a time when conversation has been as tough to find as a snow leopard fur ski jacket in Berkeley, California. The undefined “conversation” is the equivalent of an illustration by Thomas Kinkade. Evoking “conversation” from the math classes and electrical engineering labs at MIT is similar to the nostalgic view of a cottage in a forest by a babbling stream. The setting is comforting, but it never existed.

Net net: Another word has lost its meaning. Conversation? What’s that? A sequence of tweets, the discussion among talking heads, the interaction between a consultant and her clients? My hunch is that Mr. Johnson in the coffee shop lectured and quipped. Conversation? Who knows?

I will stick to search and retrieval. That’s semi-Socratic unless the system uses one of those slick MIT-polished predictive algorithms. Connecting is its own thing, neither conversation nor communication in my opinion.

Stephen E Arnold, April 23, 2012

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