Wednesday, November 3, 2010

U No 2 Well What I Is Talk About: The Internet Ruins Conversations

As promised, please find the continuation of my post a few weeks ago about some of the ways that the internet and technological revolution frustrates me (Apologies for the delay. Last week, I decided to write about the election hoping to inspire a few more young voters...). If you read that post, you'll find some of my musings on the explosion of viral news and thoughts about whether the internet has changed the way we learn. Nevertheless, these qualms are dwarfed by how frustrated I am with the way the internet, more specifically, the mobile internet, has ruined conversation. 

Ah....conversation....the age old Socratic art is, in many ways, the pinnacle of human communication. Even more than confidence and the ability to speak and think extemporaneously, the great conversationalists pride themselves in their refined intellectual, social and emotional intelligence. Watching the masters (or reading them, see: Plato) is like witnessing a great duel. Ideas and hypotheses are thrusted forward and parried back with apparent ease. Instead of the bloody and gruesome finish of the saber, a great conversation ends, not with victory and demise, but with a shared learning and the rushing sensation of human connection.

Our current issues with conversation, as I can see it, started with the mobile phone. Nearly one decade ago, when I was still an impressionable young fellow, I had an English teacher (who had recently graduated from college) who played an integral role in shaping me as a learner and thinker. A passionate and progressive teacher, he was know for, amongst other things, pedantically attacking cell phone using students. He would exclaim that he found even having a mobile phone at school, when in public in general or during social events, incredibly rude.

I don't ask for much," he'd remark. "But when you go to see someone, whether in class or socially, you shouldn't spend a significant portion of that time disconnected from the person plugged in front of you."

At the time, most of my classmates scoffed at his proclamations, confused that someone so close in age could be so old fashioned. Although I was once the victim of his diatribes (and him confiscating my phone for a couple of days), I always appreciated the sentiment: If your going to go somewhere or do something, you should commit all of yourself to that activity, don't leave yourself tethered somewhere else. Also, don't be rude and talk (or let your phone ring) really loudly in inappropriate places (like a classroom, a theater production or grocery store).

I realized that his issues had nothing to do with age or generation.  He was concerned with value.  The introduction of mobile phones had significantly decreased the value of the time he spent with his students or friends.  People seemed to be oblivious of how their actions affected the world around them.  

Concurrent with the mass adoption of cell phones, we (young people) had just discovered instant messaging. Our enthusiasm for this new medium changed communication forever. Social networking sites and internet based communication systems all retain (or were built upon) aspects of instant messaging.

We became so used to the constant frenetic atmosphere of the internet (which has been fueled by the explosion of social media) and adapted to function only in this chaos. Meanwhile, and for no apparent reason other than speed (or maybe laziness), our grammar, spelling and syntax fell apart. U no 2 well what I is talk about. 

When mobile text messaging became standard and smart phones were developed, the flood gates opened. All of the bad habits and freneticism of internet communication flushed out into the real world.
I can't even imagine what my old teacher would say about people sticking their faces in smart phones, not to mention the regular interruptions of email, Facebook alerts, text messages, sports scores, Twitter updates, movies, songs and Farmville updates.

Personally, I can't stand the constant and repeated interruptions of the massive amount of information flying through the air all the time. Whether at school, work, or a social gathering or event, we are consistently and frustratingly distracted from our primary tasks and activities.

In addition to ruining and souring individual conversations and events, the internet and mobile revolution might be spawning the first ever generation that has, in addition to having no idea how to write or speak correctly, (mostly because they have not been forced to really read, listen or even partly process everything they see on the internet), not developed interpersonal social skills in the same way as previous generations, if at all.

Nevertheless, I often retreat to the silvery confines of my computer, embracing myself in the incandescent glow of free-flowing web information.  Even with all of my qualms and petty issues, I am still a passionate supporter and fan of the internet and technology.  I just hope the side-effect of all of the incredible technological development isn't detrimental to one of human-kind's most valuable and unique talents: real person-to-person conversation.