Tag Archives: social media

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Is Basic Conversational Fluency Atrophying?

524px Auguste Renoir Conversation

We are kidding ourselves if we believe “social media” substitutes for communication in a social world.

It seems that many of us are losing our will or abilities to sustain a genuine two-sided conversation. We now seem to be coaxed into being an audience for the rambles of acquaintances who are desperate for acknowledgment.  When did the idea of engaging in a true exchange with another become so problematic?   The experience is familiar: after an extended time with someone do we notice that we were little more than spectators to their thoughts and feelings.  Some have even mastered the kind of “no breath” ramble that discourages interruptions.

It has always been true that an evening with others might be hijacked by an acquaintance that needs to be heard. Whatever curiosity that could have once existed has been swamped by the conversational equivalent of a filibuster.

This kind of domination of what could be a genuine exchange can come from people in all age ranges. But my experience is that it is most pronounced among older adults who seem to exhibit of a person with fewer chances to have conversational partners. Dustin Hoffman gives us an example in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected )(2017).  His character, Harold, is a needy and aging sculptor, mostly in denial that he is no longer a hot in the fickle New York art scene. Baumbach has given Harold a bundle of declarations spoken into a void. Even his wife and adult children have tuned out.

It’s an old axiom in my field that opinion-giving is a common feature of the male communication style. But I see it more as becoming an equal-opportunity trait. With many exceptions, age seems to drain away interest in others. And so, conversations can devolve into long and unsolicited monologues: reports about what a person has been reading, commentaries or sermons offered but not invited, old stories retold, or the recitation of events in their extended families. Many seem to have forgotten how to share the conversational stage.  At the end of some of these longer performances it is easy to feel like a witness rather than a participant.

If it’s possible that advancing age makes us less willing to do the work of fully engaging with others, the other end of the life cycle poses its own challenges to the idea of genuine conversation. The primary cause seems to be increased self absorption, decreasing opportunities to listen to others with accuracy.

teens and cell phones

As noted here before, the most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, X, and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated, self-contained and intentionally isolating. Many seem to be struggling to acquire the social intelligence needed to display empathy with others or exercise a degree of self-monitoring.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets texting or “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle documents a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grow up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.

It’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games require various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity or feedback. But the most consequential of all is a pale approximation of intimacy.

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A Cloud Over Tech

If we all “hang out” virtually, we make ourselves smaller.

A few days ago I watched a car drifting on its own across a sloped parking lot, motor off.  There was an occupant, but he was lost to everything except the text he was writing. He was clearly headed for trouble on the other side when he finally realized that the laws of physics had put him in the path of others. I fear this is us, drifting–even while the world waits–and too preoccupied with a screen to notice.

teens and cell phones

As a case in point Brian Chen’s recent technology piece in the New York Times (December 29, 2022) eagerly described of coming advances in digital media:  better iPhones, new virtual reality equipment, software that allows people to “share selfies at the same time,” and social media options that provide new “fun places to hang out.”

So glib and so short-sighted.  When did a few inches of glass with microchips become a “place?” Language like this makes one wonder if, as students, these technology journalists encountered the rich expanses of social intelligence that come to life in real time. Too few technology mavens seem to give any weight to the ranges of human experience predicated on hard-won human achievements of cognition and competence.  Consumer-based digital media are mostly about speed rather than light. If we all “hang out” virtually, we make ourselves smaller, using the clever equivalent of a mirror to not notice our diminished relevance.

Most social media sites only give us only the illusion of connection. This is perhaps one reason movies, sports and modern narratives are so attractive: we can at least witness people in actual “places” doing more with their lives than exercising their thumbs. Spending time with young children also a helps. In their early years children reflect our core nature by seeking direct and undivided attention; no virtual parenting, please. In expecting more than nominal indifference they may be more like their grandparents than parents.

A.I. pollutes the idea of authorship

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Among more changes awaited next year, Chen described a “new chatty assistant” from an A. I. firm. The software is called Chat-GPT, which can allow a nearly sentient chatbot to act as a person’s “research assistant,” or maybe generate business proposals, or even write research papers. He’s enthusiastic about how these kinds of programs will “streamline people’s work flows.”  But I suspect these require us to put our minds in idle: no longer burdened with functioning as an agency of thought.  Apparently the kinks to be worked out would be no more than technical, freeing a person from using complex problem-solving skills. Indeed, the “work” of a computer generated report cannot be said to come from the person at all. As with so many message assistants, A.I. pollutes the idea of authorship. Who is in charge of the resulting verbal action?  Hello Hal.

Consider how much worse it is for teachers of logic, writing, grammar, vocabulary, research and rhetoric, let alone their students. All ought to be engaged in shaping minds that are disciplined, smart about sources, and able to apply their life experiences to new circumstances. It is no wonder that the increasing presence of intellectual fakery makes some college degrees nearly meaningless. Paying for an A.I.-generated college paper is bad enough; generating plans for action from a self-writing Word program is a nightmare for all of us who expect our interlocutors to be competent, conscious and moral free agents.

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