Belfast Telegraph

We must not confuse talk with genuine conversation

By Terence Blacker

The landline telephone rings only occasionally these days and more often than not, when it does, it brings a call-centre hustle of some kind.

Yet every day passes in a blur of sustained, staccato communication with the outside world: can you do this? Have you seen that? Nudge, link, like, follow.

The rhythm of online correspondence provides an easy sort of company, and can sometimes make life more convenient.

But we are losing the art of conversation.

In a perceptive New York Times article, Professor Sherry Turkle, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has argued that there is growing confusion between communicating online - "the silence of connection", as she calls it - and conversing in real life.

"People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people - carefully kept at bay," she writes. "We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' on online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't."

Talk, in other words, is not to be confused with its cousins in cyberspace: chat, shout and mutter. It may be messy and old fashioned, it will certainly carry the risk of anger, confusion, hurt and boredom, but it grows more important for the health of heart and mind as we become more hooked on connection.

The online friendship of familiars and strangers is largely an illusion. It can be shaped to our individual needs, deleted and blocked.

An extension and validation of self, it is but one small step away from being kept company by a computer with a programme to please.

Real talk to real people, in contrast, cannot be kept at bay with a click of the finger. Feelings and ideas, in all their contradictoriness and complexity, need to be expressed in words, tone of voice and facial expressions rather than being tapped out in text, tweet or e-mail, with symbols representing emotions.

We are becoming so used to connection - accelerated, superficial and brief - that encountering arguments or states of feeling which are complicated, as life tends to be, can be a shock to the system. Online life is one of polarities: you like or you don't, and then you move on. There is no room for nuance.

That approach infects real life. Feelings that are tricky to express lose out to online equivalents which can be denoted with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign.

Because conversation provides real emotion and thought, rather than a quick and easy imitation of those things. Any serious meeting should start with a request to turn off all mobile phones.

Real conversation is important for our sanity and our happiness. An excess of online chat will make us lonelier, less kind to one another, more supine and self-obsessed.

In both the personal and the political worlds, any argument which requires mental effort and flexibility, a recognition that there is sometimes no obvious right or wrong, will lose out to simple, time-efficient stupidity.

The best of human thought and feeling risks getting lost in the roaring silence of connection.

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