Reclaiming Conversation and Culture

1998 isn’t that long ago; ok it’s 18 years but it was the first time I visited San Francisco.  It was then  the most beautiful, vibrant, engaging and creative city I’d ever clapped eyes on.  When I think of the place I think of great punk rock bands like Rancid, Jawbreaker, Green Day, the fantastic City Lights bookshop, Amoeba records in Haight Ashbury, Sushi Castro, Zeitgeist, Citizen Cake…the list goes on.  I now have family living there so I drop in from time to time but rarely find myself as excited as I was back in ’98.

The gentrification of San Francisco is driving the creative and artistic side of town out to more affordable areas.  The hip areas are now inhabited by the equally creative technology professionals.  In 2010 I visited a café that made a big impression on my fist visit and was horrified to see that the life had been sucked out of it.  The place was full, but the majority of patrons were alone and gazing like Zombies at their MacBook Air’s or iPhones.  I struggled to reconcile the almost morbid atmosphere with the loud, brash and irreverent establishment I’d encountered 12 years earlier.

41ixPNQCjeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bit by bit over the last few years I’ve begun to make a connection.  Anybody who visits this site will know that I enjoy Nicholas Carr’s writing on how evolving technology is impacting on us, and not always for the better.  I recently finished reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and reckon it could be one of the most important books published in the last decade.   There is far too much in the book to discuss in this piece but I’ll address a number of areas that resonated with me.

Take this quote from a young man who would rather talk to someone via text message as it gives him the best chance of editing himself.

“Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Horrifying.  But today there are countless teenagers and young adults who no longer have the ability to sit down, look somebody in the eye and have a good old stoush over something that’s bugging them.  Instead they prefer to sit in different rooms and sort out their issues via sms or Whatsapp.

Turkle conjures up other remarkable quotes from people whose interactions have changed dramatically as a result of technology.  Here’s another clanger:

“What would be the value proposition of disagreeing with each other face-to-face?”

Somehow I don’t think that Sherry Turkle went off and crunched the numbers on the “business case” for that one.

People are no longer comfortable sitting on their own in a quiet moment and digesting various aspects or issues in their lives.  Instead they tend to reach for the phone and go to Facebook, twitter or a news feed.  This has led to “a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection” which seems to inhibit our creativity.  Turkle supports this with a quote from Picasso who said that “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

Having worked in some very high-pressure environments with self-styled creatives I’ve rarely witnessed something genuinely ground-breaking or unique being produced.  More often than not the end-result is stock and no different from the competition, and that’s largely down to the fact that the people have very little time to themselves to think in an “always on” professional environment.

Many people feel that one of the primary benefits of being able to readily access information online is that they are no longer obliged to practice and learn things off by heart.  They no longer look to read passages of text or news articles in depth preferring to scan and get the general gist of the content.  It’s a practice known as “grazing”.  The main problem with grazing, according to Turkle is that “it makes it hard to develop a narrative to frame events.”

Turkle introduces the reader to a graduate student who noted that relying on e-memory meant that she did not retain enough information to contribute to a class discussion when she left her computer and notebook at home.

“Having access to information is always wonderful, but without having at least some information retained in my brain, I am not able to build on those ideas or connect them together to form new ones.”

There are some tasks in life that require embodied learning, and nobody wants to have to Google CPR on their iPhone next time some next to them has a heart attack.

With the advent of blogging and online news many find themselves as equally

Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle

drawn to the below-the-line comments as much as the actual article itself.   The comments are more often than not a mix of sagacious comment, encouragement and downright nastiness.   I don’t have any access to research on below-the-line commentary but have noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between nastiness and anonymity.   The ability to remain anonymous through technology seems to dehumanise and leave people feeling that there is no need to be accountable for anything they say.  For this reason I tend to avoid below-the-line commentary, and whenever I feel the urge to have a peak will only read those where there’s a full name displayed.

In a discussion with a lecturer in MIT about a lecture where students were able to comment electronically about the content presented the lecturer said that “anonymity flattened out the discussion…Real people have real concerns and interests…But once the questions are turned into a flat stream of questions and comments without faces…you end up not caring about them.  You care about a question when you know whose question it is.  A question that doesn’t come from a person – it’s only half a question.”  Food for thought then for online editors in the media.  Is there any real value in enabling below the line commentary, and if you feel there is why not adopt a standard whereby only genuine people with rigorously verified identities are able to comment.

As a management consulting professional I’ve observed how technology has diminished organisational relationships both internally and externally through diminished conversations and co-ordination.  Turkle doesn’t delve as deeply into the world of work as I had hoped but then again she could get another book out of that topic alone.

The author isn’t anti-technology and acknowledges that it’s here to stay but it’s well worth examining how it is affecting how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world around us.  How we deal with its impact on our creativity and relationships will take time and could be addressed in a fashion similar to how we deal with issues like speeding traffic or alcohol.  Handle with appropriate consideration, respect and care!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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