Lindsey Carranza, Conversation, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation. Plucked it off the shelf serendipitously, while retreiving The Empowerment Manual, by Starhawk, which was recommended to me by @care_save for co-op study. And since I’m reporting on current reading, I’ll also share that I’ve lately found myself entranced by Octavia Butler’s Dawn (Xenogenesis, Bk. 1), which is about a woman who wakes up after WW3, finding herself in the care of an alien society that has rescued the (few) surviving humans to harvest them for genetic purposes. They call themselves traders. These aliens, the Oankali, travel throughout the universe finding species with whom to exchange DNA. They draw from vast libraries of genetic information to evolve and adapt themselves to new worlds. They perform all these transactions using their own bodies, through an advanced form of sexuality.
Turkle’s book has me thinking, though, about the relation between online and face-to-face communication, which is not as unrelated to the exchange of alien DNA as it might seem. Her thesis is that the way people communicate these days—via text, social media, etc.—accelerates what she calls a flight from conversation, and that this is a problem, because actual conversations do something (or makes us something) that texting, tweeting, social status updating, and so on, do not. Moreover, she argues, the ubiquitous and incessant presence of modern digital technologies, whether or not we’re actively using a device at any given moment, itself inhibits conversation. For example, the mere presence a phone when two people are talking will diminish the measured empathy and reported satisfaction of the encounter (according to participants in Turkle’s research).
Nothing can replace the experiential depth and richness of face-to-face conversation, Turkle argues. So, we must learn how to use our technologies (and redesign them) to facilitate (or at least stay out of the way) of real conversations again. Turkle is particularly concerned with family, education and business contexts, but her arguments also apply on a fundamental level to what it means to be a person. We are less than fully human if we do not have real conversations.
Naturally, this has got me thinking: if Turkle is right (I think her research confirms what we already know, but don’t act on), this means that it’s impossible, at least with current technology, to be fully human online. Moreover, it means that the more comprehensively the online digital world colonizes the offline lifeworld (the more pervasive—and biologically invasive—the technology becomes), the less fully human we will be, online and offline. It’s a losing battle.
Obviously, personal responsibility and discipline is a defense. Our technologies are enchanting—glazed in magical auras—they tempt us away from ourselves. But we can resist, create safe non-digital spaces; we can practice analog austerities, such as meditation and reading actual books (made of dead trees) and having phone-free sex and walking alone in the woods; we can be party-poopers, raining urine on the cyberspace parade. I can watch how an impulse arises, a flicker of muscle memory near my thumb, the twitch of thought as an urge to check my phone bubbles up in my brain. I can witness the nervous cluster gather energy, twist into a ligament twinge; I can inhale and exhale. And, if I merely observe, I can let the micro-desire dissipate, while interrogating my intent.
But who wants to being doing that all the time? There are limits to willpower.
The smarter thing would be to redesign our technologies, and retrain our use of them, to be human-centric—i.e., built and coded with the intention of enhancing human depth, at the same time as expanding connectivity and access. But we mustn’t confuse or conflate breadth and depth, connectivity and communion. The depth dimension, which is an intensification of interiority, is what is implied by “conversation.” We go into the “depths” and discover that there is life down there. Strange bioluminescent creatures. Bizarro mineral formations. Underwater volcanos.
Yet a conversation can also go high. Conversation can spawn flights of thought, “brain storms” of the imagination, a play of minds that dance in freedom. Conversation is the dojo of reason. It can be “on the level,” keeping it real. Genuine conversation is multidimensional, non-linear. It’s risky; it can be death-defying. We must listen, to ourselves as much as others, to know what we really think, and who thinks what, and how it feels and what it means. Conversation is pretty much the only way, as far as I can tell, to transmute violent feelings into understanding.
I also know this: Connection does not equal conversation. Sharing, commenting on, or even “discussing” some topic (e.g., in a Facebook group or forum) is not the same as conversation. Even video chat (ultrawild Google hangout party, anyone?) does not (and cannot) accomplish what face-to-face dialogue does. The problem is that many of the people I want to talk to can only be found online. They’re not in my hometown. We don’t see each other face to face. We might never.
Must I resign myself to online experience always being a pale—fragmented, distracting, stimulating and yet not equally nourishing—abstraction from real life? Must I re-prioritze the local over the non-local? The analog over the digital? Or is there some synthesis, some elegant integration, possible?
One thing I’ve noticed is that space matters—on the screen and off. (In other words, the layout of elements on a page, but also the surrounding space we’re in). As well, time matters. How we structure space and time (aka “user experience”) affects the quality of the discourse. The interface must be spacious, and time must be allowed for thoughts to propagate. A conversation breathes. There is an inhale/exhale cadence, as with listening and speaking in person, or reading and writing in private. The underlying logic of our media must allow for natural rhythms. When we feel ourselves hyperventilating, rushed and scattershot, unable to take it all in, split between multiple overcharged threads, it’s a symptom that our thought-processes (via attention) have been hijacked.
Incentives also matter. What do our technologies want from us? What do they want us to do, and why, and for whose benefit? Underlying logics aren’t neutral. Agendas are alway coded in, whether it’s an advertising-oriented algorithm, or an addictive interface. Can we incentivize for depth? For intelligence? For novelty?
Language matters too. We must become good writers—and readers—to converse online. Because so much of online interaction is text-based, the more vivid, imaginative, thought-provoking, and coherent writers we are—and the better our reading-comprehenion and intimacy with each others’ “texts” (as well as cultural sub-texts)—the more authentic and substantial our conversations will be, because we are conveying and sharing a deeper interiority.
The question I have, then (for those who want and hunger for real conversations, as I do), is how can we have these conversations online? Even if our digital discourse can never replace face-to-face communication, how can it at least be better? Much better? How we optimize for the human in digital life? At the same time, how can online spaces enable (or enhance) conversations in real life?
I can see there is some way the three books I’m reading all interrelate. There is a sense in we could see ourselves as analogues of the Oaknali, traders of cultural genetics through our discourse…and some way we might need’s Starhawk’s methods of social empowerment via organization, to do this well…and a way we need to “reclaim conversation”—to reclaim our social souls—as Turkle suggests. Can we reclaim the art of conversation in the digital age?
Cracking this nut is a bit of life goal for me. I would love to hear your thoughts…