Social Media and the
Dying Art of Conversation
Has Technology Killed Our Ability to
To experience a sense of belonging, to be seen, valued and heard, is one of the most fundamental desires of human beings. Yet, life in the 21st century — running around chasing heavy schedules, meeting targets and deadlines — has sabotaged meaningful connections in our lives. Modern-day living with smartphones and social media has further cemented this loss. The influx of digital devices and apps and their growing use, especially that we are witnessing due to Covid-19 lockdowns, it is not hard to believe that the verbal conversation is dying. Devices and apps can help us communicate around the globe, but they are blocking our direct connection to those nearby.
Conversation is delightful, but unsaid rules for how and when it happens have been established collectively over the past decade or so. No one – except your mum or someone asking about an accident you were never in – just calls these days. Some people will text to warn of a call; others will hold a conversation by swapping voice notes back and forth. (A youth truth: using the voice memo function on WhatsApp as a sort of dictaphone to “talk in turns” rather than hold “a live conversation” is now a thing.)
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
— Albert Einstein
FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and Snapchat, have replaced significant amounts of face-to-face conversation for many people. These apps allow us to converse with each other quickly and easily—overcoming distances, time zones, and countries. We can even talk to virtual assistants such as Alexa, Cortana, or Siri—commanding them to play our favourite songs, films, or tell us the weather forecast. The growth of such technologies has broken down the pre-existent boundaries of connectivity, and made easy to converse with a man in the United States as it is with the next-door neighbour.
These ways of communicating reduce the need to speak to another human being. This has led to some of the conversational snippets of our daily lives now taking place mainly via technological devices. So, no longer do we need to talk with shop assistants, receptionists, bus drivers, or even coworkers, we simply engage with a screen to communicate whatever it is we want to say. In fact, in these scenarios, we tend to only speak to other people when digital technology doesn’t operate successfully.
People are now increasingly turning to their phones to de-stress or take a break from work. This behavior has been described as ‘phubbing’ — ‘phone snubbing’, i.e. the act of snubbing someone in a social setting in favour of your mobile phone. We seem to be powerless against this compulsive need to tap, swipe and scroll, which has spiralled out of control, taking over us completely. As sad as it may seem, the phenomenon is prevalent the world over without exception. Numerous studies have shown that it creates a barrier to meaningful communication, leading to significantly lower relationship satisfaction and overall individual well-being.
Technology can create an “illusion of connection” as people become more dependent on their devices. Sadly, studies are also concluding people are becoming lonelier as technology-based communications exceed in-person conversations. This is proving especially true for younger generations. In the business setting, this is a crucial point. Lonely team members are more likely to experience decreased productivity levels and be less engaged with their jobs.
However, humans are social creatures. We all need to feel wanted — desired, even — and this starts with a conversation. We like to talk, we like to converse and nothing can or ever will replace the bond for which regular conversation allows. Be it with a stranger on the way to work or a close friend of many years, the only way to develop a strong, genuine relationship is to get beyond the infinite possibilities of editing, cutting and deleting that exist via these technologies in which we continue to overindulge. In “The Pursuit of Attention,” sociologist Charles Derber shares the results of fascinating research in which hundreds of face-to-face interactions were studied by researchers, revealing how hard people tried and vied for attention.
Indeed, face-to-face conversation can strengthen social ties: with our neighbours, friends, work colleagues and other people we encounter during our day. We have to acknowledge their existence, their humanness, in ways that instant messaging and texting do not. Face-to-face conversation is a rich experience that involves drawing on memories, making connections, making mental images, associations and choosing a response. Face-to-face conversation is also multisensory: it’s not just about sending or receiving pre-programmed trinkets such as likes, cartoon love hearts and grinning yellow emojis.
When having a conversation using video, you mainly see another person’s face only as a flat image on a screen. But when we have a face-to-face conversation in real life, we can look into someone’s eyes, reach out and touch them. We can also observe the other person’s body posture and the gestures they use when speaking – and interpret these accordingly. All these factors, contribute to the sensory intensity and depth of the face-to-face conversations we have in daily life.
Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology, warns that when we first “speak through machines, [we] forget how essential face-to-face conversation is to our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy”. But then “we take a further step and speak not just through machines but to machines”.
Ultimately, the sound, touch, smell and observation of bodily cues we experience when having a face-to-face conversation cannot be fully replaced by our technological devices. Communicating and connecting with others through face-to-face discussion is valuable because it is not something that can be edited, paused or replayed.
This is not to say that we should banish these social networks from the lives we lead but it is important to be aware of the damage devices can cause to the relationships we foster. When it comes to our individual growth and development, the quality of our friendships trumps quantity, and while social media inevitably leads us with an infinite amount of shallow connections, it leaves us with very few genuine relationships that matter and hold the opportunity to grow. However, we can ensure that our everyday lives involve a blend of face-to-face and technologically mediated forms of communication as digital forms of communication can supplement, rather than replace face-to-face conversation. We can make technology work for us, rather than being a slave to technology. Sherry Turkle, the American internet pioneer, says: “Technology is making a bid to redefine human connection — how we care for each other, how we care for ourselves — but it’s also giving us the opportunity to affirm our values and our direction.”
So, recognize this and move forward. Do continue to spend time on social networks, chatting and expressing yourself as you see fit, but be careful not to neglect those who really mean something to you. What we can focus on, is how technology can lead us back to the real world, our real lives, our own communities and our own friends and lovers. They need us and without them, we would not be human. Without them and all the truly magical wonders that love and friendship bring, the art of conversation will truly be lost, forever.
The writer is an
Advocate High Court.