As our meeting places fall silent, save for tapping on screens, it seems we have
mistaken ubiquitousconnection for the real thing.
I first noticed it in a restaurant. The place was strangely quiet, and at
one table a group seemed deep in prayer. Their heads were bowed, their eyes
hoodedand their hands in their laps. I then realised that every one, young and
old, was gazing at a handheld phone. People strolledthe street outside likewise,
with arms crooked at right angles, necks bent and heads in potentially crippling
postures. Mothers with babies were doing it. Students in groups were doing it.
They were like zombies on call. There was no conversation.
Every visit to California convinces me that the digital revolution is over,
by which I mean it is won. Everyone is connected. The New York Times last week
declared the death of conversation. While mobile phones may at last be falling
victim to etiquette, this is largely because even talk is considered too
intimatea contact. No such bar applies to emailing, texting, messaging, posting
and tweeting. It is ubiquitous, the ultimate connectivity, the brain wired
full-time to infinity.
The MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle claims that her students
are close to mastering the art of sustaining eye contact with a person while
texting someone else. It is like an organist playing different tunes with hands
and feet. To Turkle, these people are "alone together …a tribe of one". Anyone
with 3,000 Facebook friends has none.
The audience in a New York theatre now sit, row on row, with lit machines
in their laps, looking to the stage occasionally but mostly scrolling and
tapping away. The same happens at meetings and lectures, in coffee bars and on
jogging tracks. Children are apparently developing a dexterityin their thumbs
unknown since the evolution of the giant sloth. Talk is reduced to the muttered,
heads-down expletives brilliantly satirisedin the BBC's Twenty Twelve.
Psychologists have identified this as "fear of conversation". People wear
headphones as "conversational avoidance devices". The internet connects us to
the entire world, but it is a world bespoke, edited, deleted, sanitised. Doubt
and debate become trivial because every statement can be instantly verified or
denied by Google. There is no time for the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of
Socratic dialogue, the skeleton of true conversation.
There is now apparently a booming demand for online "conversation" with
robots and artificialvoices. Mobiles come loaded with customised "girlfriends".
People turn to computerised dating advisers, even claim to fall in love with
their on-board GPS guides. A robot seal can be bought to sit and listen to
elderly people talk, tiltingits head and blinking in sympathy.
We have, says Turkle, confused connection with conversation – "the illusion
of companionship without the demands of relationship". Human friendship is rich,
messy and complicated. It requires patience and tolerance, even compromise. As
we push other people off into a world of question and answer, connection and
information, friendship becomes ersatz virtuality.
In his history of conversation, Stephen Miller points out that "most
Americans are nowadays concerned more with improving their sex life than their
conversation life". Even the phone is pass. Those who used to call a friend in
trouble now send a text. Phone calls are to register urgency or shout anger,
with corresponding loss of nuanceand sensibility. From Mailer to Eminem, the
modern cultural hero is expressionist. He or she has "attitude", and to prove it
uses the F-word as often as possible.
Miller notes that public discourse is dominated by contention, by
"intersecting monologues". Anger, lack of inhibition, "letting it all hang out"
are treated as assets in public debate, in place of a willingness to listen and
adjust one's point of view. Politics thus becomes a platform of rival angers.
American politicians are ever more polarised, reduced to conveying a genuine
hate for each other.
Likewise, the lack of tolerance in American Christianity can be as
frightening as it can in Islam. When I once professed support for IVF, a man
glared across the table, tight-jawed, and asked: "What does it feel like to be a
mass murderer?" With such people there is no conversation, only a tiptoeing from
All that said, the death of conversation has been announced as often as
that of the book. Samuel Johnson and David Hume worried that the decline of
political conversation would lead to violent civil discord. George Orwell
concluded that "the trend of the age was away from creative communalamusements
and toward solitary mechanical ones". The philosopher Michael Oakeshott
professed himself desperate to "rescue the art of conversation". Somehow we have
The "post-digital" phenomenon, the craving for live experience, is showing
a remarkable vigour. The US is a place of ever greater congregation and
migration, to parks, beaches and restaurants, to concerts, rock festivals, ball
games, religious rallies. Affinity groups frantically seek escape from the
digital dictatorship, using Facebook and Twitter not as destinations but as
portals, as route maps to human contact.
A hundred online universities are no substitute for a live campus any more
than Facebook is a substitute for sex or Twitter for debate. Gatherings such as
Burning Man and Coachella have revived the medieval pilgrimage, with tens of
thousands crossing mountains and deserts to spend from $100 to $1,000 a weekend
to commune with like-minded souls. They talk. They even converse.
Somewhere in this cultural morassI am convinced the zest for human contact
will preserve the qualities that Plato and Plutarch, Johnson and Hume identified
as essential for a civilised life, qualities of politeness, listening and
courtesy. Those obsessed with faddishconnectivity and personal avoidance are not
escaping reality. They are not TS Eliot's misanthropicPrufrock, "a pair of
ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas". Deep down they still
crave friendship. They just want a better class of talk.
With that in mind, my editor has asked me to offer up a few practical
suggestions and conversational cautions.
How to open a good conversation:
1) Immediately show an interest in the other person.
2) Try to extract an opinion of some sort, and reasons for it. Never
disagree with it openly, but try to construct a dialogue based on it.
3) Never ask intimate questions, unless invited to do so.
4) Always be the one to change the subject if the going gets rough.
5) Try to leave the conversation in good repair should it be
Five of the worst conversational openings:
1) You must be very busy these days.
2) Do you live round here?
3) Do you have any children?
4) Will it never stop raining?
5) Gosh, this party is boring.
tap on 在……上轻敲
ubiquitous adj. 普遍存在的；无所不在的
gaze at 盯住；凝视
etiquette n. 礼节，礼仪；规矩
intimate adj. 亲密的；私人的
compromise n. 妥协；让步
F-word n. 粗话；脏话
public discourse 公共话语；公共讨论
contention n. 争辩；争论
crave for 渴望
congregation n. 集合；集会
revive v. 复活；复兴
pilgrimage n. 漫游；朝圣
commune with 与……谈心
morass n. 困境
zest n. 强烈的兴趣
courtesy n. 礼貌；好意；恩惠
obsessed with 非常喜欢；着迷于
faddish adj. 风行的；流行一时的
deep down 实际上；心底里
Burning Man：由一个名为“Black Rock
1. What does the author think of Facebook and Twitter?
2. Does the author suppose people obsessed with faddish connectivity and
personal avoidance hate conversation?