As an exercise in discovering how the digital age has robbed us, let us engage in an imaginary visit to the not too distant past. From the moment you enter the room, you notice the atmosphere is different. That strange background noise you hear, it isn’t music from the overhead speakers. It isn’t the television in the next room. (or the same room) It isn’t even the custom ringtones of smart phones, or incoming text notifiers, or the soft ticking of text typing or mouse clicks. That strange sound you hear in the spaces between the verbal comments of the dinner guests, is called “silence.” You have traveled back in time to a bygone age, when people talked to each other in paragraphs, rather than “tweets.” You are visiting a family who is practicing an art that is disappearing in our civilization: conversation unplugged.
Nowhere is the de-evolution of society from the refined to the primal more obvious than in how we talk to each other. In past times, the ability to hold intelligent conversation was admired, and striven for. It was in fact the main form of entertainment at social gatherings, but its purpose was more than just to entertain, it was also to enlighten. Growing children would be drilled and practiced in the ability to put together two, three, or four sensible and insightful sentences, their parents understanding that the lack of that skill would marginalize them in all the affairs of life. The effort was worthwhile only because in a gathering of people, another necessary element would be present: listening. It was a mark of status and refinement for a group of well mannered people to listen in silence, while one would introduce and develop a topic for discussion. Well practiced conversationalists could then comment also on the topic, inventing and composing on the fly replies that would be interesting and insightful. A good discussion could make an evening gathering rewarding, educational, insightful, and inspiring. Such gatherings helped to civilize the human species. Not so the present trends. Endless strings of youtube videos, posts, tweetsby any name the samethey scatter us apart into virtual islands, driving us back to the stone age.
The fact is, our devices—though we may brag how powerful they are—are powerful in some very bad ways. They also have the power to turn us all into grunting brutes, skipping from one tweet to the next, endlessly consuming with all the foresight of chickens in the barnyard pecking for the next bug. The entertainment is momentary and cheap, but it doesn’t matter, there is always another tidbit coming. In this arena, truth is not the objective, but bait scattered in small doses like a bread crumb trail to keep us clicking ahead. The prostitution of truth we might call it, where its sole purpose is cheap attention bait. The full facts of a case together with its nuances are not striven for as necessary to understand the world and make sound judgments. Rather facts (or reported facts) are treated as “props” from which to compose clever or funny tweets, and keep the viewer clicking along down the virtual highway. In other words, the point has changed. The point is no longer to be truthful or insightful, to compose meaningful answers to complex situations, but, to toss out anything that is funny” or “zippy, and thereby garner social points. Electronic conversations are all sizzle, and no steak.
College professors old enough to remember life before the digital revolution are shocked at the social poverty of young people who grew up staring at their smartphones, deprived of the most basic equipment needed to carry on meaningful live conversations. A practiced conversationalist from a century ago transported into one of today’s modern living rooms would be stunned. A shrinking population still remembers some vestige of how it used to be, though most of those never saw the pinnacle, the television in the living room having already done its damage. But the day will come when the last vestiges of the fine art of conversation will fade from common memory.
Few people in today’s world long for a return to the stuffy and ostentatious society of Henry Higgins. But if the ability to put a number of coherent sentences together is found solely in the nerdy back rooms of the debate club, something very precious will have been lost to mainstream society. The ability to be in touch with everyone, everywhere, all the time will have come, but will it be worth the cost? A truckload of costume jewelry could never buy a fine diamond. And a gigabyte of tweets could never approach the value of one well-executed live conversation, such as were common in the finer days days of the past.