Who doesn’t identify with the following scenario? A restaurant hostess escorts several young adults to a table. Literally seconds after being seated, they whip out their smartphones like Ninja warriors with throwing stars. Uh-oh, must be urgent. My goodness, someone else wants to be your Facebook friend! Wow, Beyonce’s new hairdo is blowing up Twitter! Holy cow, the Yahoo account you just checked three minutes ago has two more emails!
Those of you fretting over the future consequences of artificial intelligence may want to note the unsettling robotic behavior of present day flesh-and-blood human beings. If you’re not scared, you ought to be.
Prof. Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is clearly alarmed by technology’s effect on people. Her video talk, Humans First – Technology Second, offers a pessimistic assessment of the current state of interpersonal relationships.
“Technology makes us forget what we know about life,” says Turkle, whose research revealed that the majority of people prefer texting to talking – even though they acknowledge that it damages the interaction.
Instead of merely being a convenience, texting and e-mailing have morphed into security blankets that protect against vulnerability. Old-fashioned conversation consists of spontaneous give-and-take. Those who prefer more impersonal methodologies, such as texting, can craft well thought-out responses – and also choose to acknowledge or ignore what they wish.
“Face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do,” Turkle says.
And yet NPR reporter and talk show host Celeste Headlee felt the need to put together a video presentation entitled 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation. The problem, Headlee observes, is not just that we’re tethered to devices, but there’s a fundamental unwillingness to listen to others without criticizing, judging or interjecting.
“A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost that balance,” Headlee says.
We are so bombarded with stimuli from so many angles that staying focused is a challenge. Think of how many conversations are interrupted by buzzing or pinging smartphones. But there’s no law that says you have stop and look at your device.
It’s not too late for us to restore respect and common decency to our verbal interactions. When you’re talking with someone, really be present. Be in the moment. Don’t think about what you have to do next or who’s coming down the hallway. Darting eyes are a sure giveaway that you’re not paying attention.
Try turning off your device the next time you’re in a social situation. When you sit down to a meal with family or friends, suggest that everyone hit the off button. The fact that it may feel strange means we’ve become way too comfortable with our electronic habits.
Plug into the power of conversation. It’s awesome.