Communication technology promised to be a blessing and in many ways it has been. Without question, cut and paste beats crumpling up the paper and starting again, and photocopying beats getting mimeograph ink on a new shirt. (For younger readers, in “olden days” mimeograph fluid was supposed to stay in the machine that cranked out copies of typed information.)
However, in its impact on conversation, technology has been a curse. And each new invention has made matters worse.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s mealtimes and evenings were a time for conversation. Family members discussed the days’ events and the problems and issues reflected in them. In the process they reinforced the values that guided their lives and strengthened the bonds that made them a family.
The advent of radio altered the pattern somewhat, though not radically. Some of the time previously spent conversing was diverted to listening to radio programs. But since most families had only one radio in the house, they listened together and talked about what they heard.
Similarly, the introduction of television in the late 40s and 1950s did not change the new pattern much, at least at first. Instead of gathering around the radio, families gathered around the TV set. Programming was limited, so they tended to watch the same programs together.
When prosperity made it possible to own more than one TV set and programming choices began to multiply, however, conversation was more dramatically affected. People tended to eat meals more quickly and then scatter, each to his or her preferred program. And in the 1970s with the advent of Walkman radios and video games, young people were tempted to tune out family conversation altogether.
The invention of the personal computer improved workplace efficiency, and the Internet expanded written communication. The impact of emailing has in fact been so dramatic that the postal service may soon become extinct. Unfortunately, the time people spend emailing is stolen from the time previously devoted to conversation.
As technology has marched on, it has offered an ever-widening array of alternatives to conversation. Instead of speaking with the person next to you, you can plug in your ear bud and listen to IPod music, or bury your nose in your laptop, visit YouTube on your IPad, pick up your smart phone and text a friend, or compose a tweet for people you don’t even know.
People embrace these activities to the point of distraction almost everywhere—at work, at home, in restaurants, grocery stores, even in church. (Everyone knows we cannot buy our way to salvation, but technology addicts may think they can text their way there.) They also indulge their addiction as a variation on Russian roulette while maneuvering in heavy traffic or speeding down the highway.
As if losing the habit of conversation were not bad enough, television talk shows are undermining our understanding of what makes conversation meaningful. Turn on a talk show and chances are you won’t see one person speaking and the others listening carefully and then responding. Instead, you’ll see serial monologue. Not only do participants ignore the points others make, they often interrupt others before they are finished making them. At the end of the cacophony, the host thanks everyone for a “spirited debate,” seemingly without grasping the irony of the compliment.
In such perversions of genuine conversation, there is much talking but no real sharing of thought and therefore no understanding. People leave the discussion no more informed or wiser than they were at the start. And the audience is given a terrible example of how to carry on a discussion with others.
As technology has taken communications from across the room to around the world, conversation—that fundamental form of communication Montaigne described as “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds”—has declined dramatically. One of the most dangerous effects of this decline is the intransigence of elected officials in matters affecting the future of the country. Rather than having a meaningful conversation about those matters, they posture, engage in empty monologue, and hurl insults at one another.
An equally dangerous effect is the public’s lack of concern about such intransigence. Too many people are too lacking in awareness of the importance of conversation to lament its loss in their personal lives and in the public arena.
History informs us that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Future historians may look back at our time and conclude that we tweeted while America crumbled.
Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.