Wherefore Converse?

Preface

I started this post a couple of months ago–before Covid-19 foisted itself upon the world. The point remains relevant, nonetheless–perhaps more so.


On vacation last winter, I booked a tour from Sedona to Antelope Canyon. It was my first time traveling with a group of strangers in a small rental van, and I ended up overhearing the kind of chitchat I usually avoid. To be honest, I didn’t play a very active role in the conversation. Small talk is not my preference. Nonetheless, sitting between the other two families, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. One man apologized for echoing online reviews; then explained the “experience” he and his wife felt at one of the vortexes. The driver narrated a story surrounding a house in the area reputed to have strange sightings–but not without a disclaimer that her memory wouldn’t hold up to a Google search. And something occurred to me–the online era has changed the fundamental function of conversation as a speech act.


In the academic skills class I teach, my students read a passage titled “Education: Attentional Disarry” from social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, in which the author addresses the effects of the constant distraction of technology in a classroom. Turkle focuses on the lack of interaction due to the persistent alure of devices. She addresses the influence smartphones exert on students’ capacity to focus in a classroom, and on people sitting at the dinner table–staring at their phones rather than interacting. She talks about the lack of uninterrupted time families spend–everyone perennially lured by the siren song of the smartphone.

Still, Turkle doesn’t address the effect I suspect to be more pervasive–the influence technology exerts on the quality and tenor of conversation, even when we’re not using devices. Research on the topic assumes that so long as we are looking at each other and producing speech sounds, we engage in communication. But how has the Internet and technology influenced the quality and content of what we say?

Then

It used to be the case that conversation had value as a means of acquiring information. Before we all walked around with libraries in our pockets, informaton cost time. Therefore, people focused on the information others gave them because acquiring reliable information was time-expensive. As a result, the information others shared contained inherent value. People asked others for directions; they passed around the forecast; they sought help with the daily crossword puzzle. The accuracy of what was said was never a certainty–much the way a meal at a restaurant you couldn’t look up on Yelp could not be relied upon to meet your taste. And that part of the experience had value. Not knowing how much people said was accurate, or even true, lent a measure of mystery to every interaction. You could believe things that contained a smidgeon of exaggeration because no one would put you on the hook for not getting in your car and driving to the library to verify the accuracy of your statistics.

That was then.

Now

Conversation has undergone a metamorphosis. We no longer talk to share information. Before the Internet, conversation served a dual function of transaction & interaction. Now we perform the ritual for its interactional value alone, and then probably only to avoid the extended silences North Americans find uncomfortable (most likely stemming from a desire to assess the trustworthiness of others in a pluralistic society comprised of individuals of various backgrounds and moral characters). Meanwhile, the listener affects an air of condescending observer–assumes the ideal egalitarian posture–interspersing back-channeled “Uh-huhs” to reinforce the impossibility that the speaker knows anything he does not.

Ultimately, I don’t know if interaction without transaction will improve or detract from the act of conversation, but it makes conversing with others less necessary.

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