“The Flight from Conversation” (Sherry Turkle, NYTimes, 4/21/12). Could it be true? Are we becoming increasingly shallow with each and every Tweet?
The more I thought about the gist of Ms. Turkle’s argument, that our constant digital exchange of short bits of dialogue is eroding meaningful conversation, the more reasons I found to disagree with her conclusions. Although she sites several studies, not one of them measures the frequency of meaningful conversation plotted over the time of social networking’s rise. And that pesky term “meaningful.’’ How is she measuring that? Does “connection” warrant her slight of being called “mere?”
Based on my own experience as an avid digital communicator, the frequency of conversations I call meaningful have not diminished in the least. Actually, I think they have increased. By staying digitally in-touch with people who are physically removed, I believe our interactions are far richer when we do get together for having shared words in the interim.
Philosophers for centuries have complained about the alienation of modern life, that we’re unconnected from, you name it – a moral authority, fulfilling labor, the land, our own nature, from each other. Now it seems social scientists are whining that we are too connected, too social, and unable to be alone.
For the majority of history Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands of related individuals. Based on similar present-day groups, individuals are rarely alone and instead work collectively to insure the group’s survival. They engage in bits of conversation as they go about their affairs and I doubt their exchanges are categorically much different from the incidental stuff we Tweet and Facebook about today. If their daily banter didn’t prevent meaningful conversations later around the campfire, why assume our Web-based interactions thwart significant dialogue at the bar or dinner table?
Instead of alienating us from meaningful relationships I think our digital devices are reconnecting us to our evolutionary past. Social networking allows us to live more like our ancestors did – to be constantly connected in order to gossip, trade bits of information, to share stories, offer moments of comfort and encouragement. These relatively simple exchanges are part of the glue that holds a group together. We are a social species and there is deep satisfaction in simply staying in touch. Today our group of family and friends might be larger and more spread out, but the urge to stay connected is as strong as ever. I don’t think our hyperactive thumbs are turning the screws on human nature just yet.