Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Technology and Self

If you'd ever looked at the "About me" section of this blog - unlikely, I know, but if you did - you'd know that under interests, the first thing I list is conversation.

And by conversation, I mean full-on, undivided attention, sparkling and provocative conversation. I grew up with extremely verbal parents, I have five chatty sisters and I've always been attracted to friends (and men) who not only love to talk, but have something to say. Give me your opinions and thoughts, if only so I can argue them with you.

Trouble is, it's getting to be the extremely rare occasion when I can find a conversationalist willing to stay in the moment with me.

I'm here to tell you that the situation has reached critical mass. I can't recall the last time I had a conversation with someone that they didn't pull out their cell phone at some point. Sometimes, it's to check facts, other times, nothing more important than checking screens to comment, text, like, tweet or even buy.

Let me be clear about that: while we're having a conversation.

I know I can't fight the tide, especially at this point when it seems as if everyone (and I do mean everyone, including ocotgenarians) except me has a cell phone, but the fact is, our collective ability to have vibrant, prolonged, open-ended conversation is on the way out.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's noticed, just the only one who's not doing it. A new book, "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age" addresses this very subject, albeit by someone who calls the devices "facts of life and part of our creative lives," which strikes me as a bit over the top.

Creativity was in full flower long before the tech world had people convinced that life was impossible without constant communication. Hello Renaissance? What's up, Jazz Age?

In reading about Sherry Turkle's new book, I discover that she's a psychologist and the director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self, a title so ridiculous an improv troupe could riff on it for hours, nay, days.

But this is a woman who's studied our relationship with technology for decades and I, for one, am not the least bit surprised to learn that it's not looking good for dedicated conversationalists such as myself.

Using my hero and fellow Luddite, Henry David Thoreau, she elucidates her findings with the lessons he wrote about in "Walden." We need time alone to understand ourselves, which in turn helps us understand others, and then conversations with others to use that understanding, which then improves our ability to be introspective.

All well and good for 150 years, but not so much anymore.

Divided attention is the new normal because technology interrupts the cycle by curtailing conversation. There's a generation who have never experienced unbroken conversation, never enjoyed a meal or a walk in nature without someone pulling out their phone.

That's nothing short of tragic.

We've gotten to the point that phones are used as a safeguard against boredom  - witness waiting rooms, lines and other places people used to read or chat with strangers - despite countless studies proving that often it's boredom that sparks creativity. And even if it doesn't, isn't learning to navigate boredom part of life's lessons?

I realize I'm shouting into an abyss and no amount of lamentations will bring back a world where people got together solely for conversation without a thought to swiping, liking or posting, but as a mere observer to the constantly connected world, it makes me sad.

Even close friends, people who know how I feel about cell phones, no longer hesitate to pull them out at dinner. Worse is how when one person in a group does it, everyone else immediately feels entitled to do the same and suddenly I'm the only one not riveted to a screen.

It's especially depressing for future generations when I see parents walking or pushing young 'uns in strollers with zero interaction with the children. How do you teach a little one curiosity about the world or explain the wonder of what you pass by when Mom or Dad is on the phone?

In a recent "Date Lab" column in the Washington Post - where two strangers are sent on a blind date that is then documented in the Sunday magazine - the daters were barely a few minutes into the date, trying to get to know each other, when, in their words, their phones began "blowing up" with friends wanting to know how things were going, if they should call the police or not.

Bad enough (and so typical) that they looked at their phones five minutes into the date, even worse that they both paused to text those friends and reassure them that all was well. Actually, kids, the date is not going so well if you're willing to stop and text others rather than staying in the moment.

For several years now, a friend and I have said that when we're old ladies, we will live in her giant Church Hill mansion and hold salons, in the manner of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, inviting the cleverest and most scintillating guests to spend evenings conversing with us. Our responsibility will be to direct the conversations, keep them lively and provocative.

But I'm beginning to wonder if there will be anyone left willing to forsake their phones for the sake of talking to us without interruption.

Turkle says people need to use their phones with greater intention, but even a cockeyed optimist like me can't imagine such a thing happening. The world is too far gone.

A hundred years from now when someone unearths my blog from the crumbling remains of the Internet, they'll look at the "About me" section and wonder what kind of person put conversation above all interests.

Answer: one who never had to reclaim conversation because she never lost it in the first place.

Sadly, she may even be the last of her kind.

No comments:

Post a Comment