Tag Archives: digital media


                     Sociogram                               Wikimedia

For many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”

The two basic social functions of communication are to sustain our sense of place and our sense self.  A diverse group of thinkers ranging from sociologist George Herbert Mead to communication theorist John Peters have noted that we are sustained by anchors to others we interact with directly.  Those others may be met at home, in the neighborhood, at work, in community groups or through contact with friends. And of course there are the digital approximations of small pieces of us that we send and receive.  Indeed, for many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”  The tiny artifacts of ourselves we send to others are increasingly assumed to be enough.

One of the reasons parenting is so affirming—if sometimes more in theory than practice—is that the dependency relationship between parents and children is concrete and defining. Parenting is a reminder of the burdens and rewards that come from the monumental task of shaping the world of another human being. No wonder some experience the remorse that can come to the “empty nester.”  They have had to relinquish most of the nurturing, guidance and witnessing that–as the cliche has it–gave their lives meaning.

There is also another narrative.  Workers will sometimes admit to feeling guilty about escaping to an office where one’s place is seemingly secure and affirmed.  While many parents can’t imagine entrusting their toddlers to a sitter or daycare, others seem to adapt easily.  Indeed, a number of workers report that life can be more predictable and supportive in the office than at home, where the new and unformed ego in their care has yet to learn that others matter.  With either parenting narrative note that we still end up at the same spot; it’s the direct contact with others that matters.

Can playing video games at a normative six hours a day turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years? 

Research twenty years ago pointed to television as the mostly likely threat to the maintenance of self through direct contact.  The concern then was frequently framed in terms of the one-way nature of television, whose characters cannot return the interest we freely give to them.  In this world of “para social” relationships, a person who cares about whether Rory Gilmore will finally succeed as a professional writer–a long plotline in the popular Gilmore Girls–has made a small but consequential shift toward a world that is at once more predictable and attractive than may be the case with one’s own family.  Rory always looks great, is unfailingly polite, and has very clever things to say.  Who might not be tempted to “live” in her simplified universe?  But at best the “relationship” between a television character and viewer is “para-social”–only an approximation of the real thing. Rory can never be who we may need her to be.  She can never be there for us. In terms of a sociogram (above), she could only be represented with a dotted line, an arrow  going toward us, but not being returned.

Here’s the challenge: if electronic media allow us to put our heads in one place while our bodies are in another, are we destined for relatively barren emotional lives?  Does this fact of contemporary force us to sacrifice important social anchors?  To shift examples, can playing video games six hours a day (a gamer norm) turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years?

This critique made years ago by Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz, among others, may still hold.  And, of course, the dual pathways outlined here are more complex and blended. But in fact most of us have committed ourselves to interaction at a distance via various social media platforms where feedback is minimal.  We even have a president who seems more comfortable issuing tweets than knowing how to act in the presence of others.

In short, where we are physically is arguably less important today than the digital drop boxes where we have deposited the contents of our heads.  We use these as social substitutions in what is sometimes a long and perilous digital chain. The key question is whether they can provide enough in return to affirm that we still matter.

Conversational Ping Pong

Before Midnight Wikimedia commons
            Before Midnight/Wikimedia commons

Every theater is a museum of conversation.  In its many forms and formats drama invites us to admire the diligence that goes into a transformative exchange.

In these pages we have frequently worried about how the primary model for human communication—the face to face conversation—seems to be weakening as a default form, taking on more mutations that diminish its essence of human contact in real space and time.  We’ve cited the alarming research of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015), with its surveys of younger Americans that reveal a distinct discomfort with direct interpersonal connection.  And we’ve noted a decline in emotional affect: emotions seemingly flattened by no-obligations digital devices that absorb so much of our time.

For most of us the challenge of engaging others has never been that easy.  In the presence of another we must also listen, a process we often fake more than fulfill. The means getting out of our own heads long enough to hear what another is saying.  And then there’s the unpredictability of direct contact.  Potential partners in conversation can surprise or even diminish us, as when a listener shows complete indifference to what we are saying. A bored interlocutor who has been entrusted with a precious and personal story can inflict real injury.

It’s a good thing we have theater and all of its variations:  plays, films and television.  Theater perfects conversation.  In important ways it functions as a museum of the form, inviting us to admire the craft that goes into a transformative dialogue.  Characters that aren’t rhetorical–aren’t very fluent or engaging–are seldom the magnets in a story.  In popular theater, at least, we want snappy one-liners.  We want responsiveness.  We welcome a clash of wills between two equally formidable and loquacious people.  Even a dystopian story offers useful lessons.  We wonder why those in a dysfunctional world can’t find the resources of hope and empathy that should be their inheritance.

Anyone’s short list for inclusion in their own cinematic  museum of interpersonal fluency will vary.  The top of my list would include films such as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of love and loss that concluded with Before Midnight (2013), and the old film and stage chestnut that has just reopened on Broadway, The Front Page (1931, 1974, 2016).  In both serious and funny ways, all give us characters who are alive to the words and ideas of others.

Amplifying feelings and ideas requires reservoirs of energy, curiosity, and the will to draw others out.

Television is just as fertile in providing good examples. Old chestnuts like The West Wing (1999-2006) and Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) were mostly centered on interpersonal relationships that needed to be negotiated through compelling talk and argument.  The actors in those series were quick to remind admirers that their scripts tended to run twice the length of other shows with the same time frame.  Conversation takes effort and a degree of generosity.  Amplifying feelings and ideas requires the will to connect and draw others out.

Listen to Celine and Jesse, Before Midnight’s couple with a young family and a boat load of unfilled aspirations: he, as a writer, and she as a mother who wants to escape back into the unpredictability of her adventurous youth.  Their love is no longer new.  Yet both are trying to find the safest tracks to a shared future.

Céline: So if we're going to spend another fifty-six more years together...

Jesse: Yeah?

Céline: What about me would you like to change?

Jesse: [Smirks] That's another one of your can't-win questions. I'm not answering that.

Céline: What do you mean? There's not one thing you'd like to change about me? I'm perfect?

Jesse: Okay.

Céline: Okay.

Jesse: Actually...

Céline: One thing.

Jesse: If I could change one thing about you...

Céline: Uh-huh.

Jesse: It would be for you to stop trying to change me.

Céline: You're a very skilled manipulator, you know that?

Jesse: Well, I'm onto you. I know how you work.

Céline: You think?

Jesse: Yeah. I know everything about you.

It’s clear they have a long way to go.  But somehow we believe they have the conversational chops to navigate through the accommodations the will have to make for dreams that have been put on hold.

Of course conversation should not be relegated to a spectator form.  If it is representative of our dramatic arts, it’s one that we need to cultivate in ourselves.  Twitter, and two-word responses in Facebook won’t cut it as forms that will push the potentials of communication forward.  As a teacher it can be painful to be on the frontlines with too many able students who seem to have been rendered mute by shifting too much time and energy to stunted forms of connectivity.  The impulse to interact seems to have become dormant.  What is lost is the expressive power that is our birthright as symbol-using creatures.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu