Is technology killing the art of conversation?

I spend a lot of my time on public transport, and one of my favourite pastimes is eavesdropping on other people's conversations. It not only passes the time, but I also learn new things from listening in, even if the conversations are sometimes ill-informed.

Earlier this week, as I travelled into work by bus, I overheard an elderly gentleman conversing with three young people. He had watched the two young men as they gazed into their smart phones, and then said to the young woman: "Can I ask why you haven't got your phone out?' She replied: 'I was hoping for a conversation with these two...'

His response was a light-hearted discussion with them which concluded with the statement: 'The art of conversation is dead.' The exchange then descended into: 'There's too much technology around' and, 'I don't know what the world is coming to...' and I switched off at that point. But it led me to think - is the art of conversation dead? Sherry Turkle seems to think it's in trouble. In Alone Together (2011) Turkle implies that technology is distracting us from social interaction, and is ruining conversation: 'The relentless connection leads to a new solitude'. Others believe similarly. Jaron Lanier (2011) believes that interactive technologies are 'deadening personal interaction.' There are various similar views in recent publications.

An alternative perspective to this is that conversation isn't actually dying at all - rather, it's evolving into something, new, something different.

The images above show that different media have the capability to distract people from the 'real world' around them. We often see people on public transport and elsewhere, with their heads buried in their technology. But prior to mobile devices, we also used to see many people with their heads buried in books, magazines and newspapers. Yet mobile phones and other interactive, connected devices have an advantage over traditional media. With a connected device you can hold a conversation with someone who is not in the same geographical location. Therefore, conversation can still occur, but it is now enhanced by the technology.

Lankshear and Knobel talk about new and emerging media literacies (2006) that do not replace traditional literacies such as speaking and listening, but extend and enhance them. This is echoed by Kress (2009) who holds that new technologies are encouraging new forms of literacy and communication. My own research shows similarly that digital literacies allow us to extend our communication repertoire, enabling us to interact powerfully in new digital environments (Wheeler, 2015). Holding a Skype conversation requires new skills that go beyond face to face conversations. You may be aware for example of the reduced social cues that are caused by the limitation of interaction that is mediated by a camera and phone connection over the Internet. There may be latency (delay) due to the distances involved, and there may be limitations to the sound and visual elements of the Skype call. The same applies to any distance conversation (but we are already used to some of these effects because of a century or more of telephone use).

Conversation is changing, but that doesn't mean it's dying. As we come to terms with using our tools and learn more about what it means to carry them around with us, so we discover new ways of communicating. Conversation can now take place in many modes. It is important to realise that, yes, although people can be distracted by their devices, they are still able to hold conversations. So, back to the bus: The three young people were in fact holding a conversation. They were watching YouTube videos, and I head them discussing these before the retired gentleman intervened. As new technology emerges into the public domain and becomes more popular, we need to prepare ourselves for even more new ways of communicating. The art of conversation is not dead. It's very much alive and is diversifying in many new directions.

Kress, G. (2009) Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge.
Lanier, J. (2011) You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto. London: Penguin.
Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning (Second Edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
Wheeler, S. (2015) Learning with 'e's: Education theory and practice in the digital age. Carmarthen: Crown House.

Photo source

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Is technology killing the art of conversation? by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


It's about the effective use of tools: recently I saw a family of four having lunch, all focused on their mobiles, no conversation took place at all - that's sad, not effective!
Steve Wheeler said…
How can you be certain they weren't conversing with someone, somewhere, through social media? My point is that conversation can now occur in so many different ways.
WendyTagg said…
I often see young people showing each other what's on their timelines and chatting about the photo their friend posted or whatever. For older ones, the conversation pauses to allow a quick fact check on Google. Phones are just becoming part of our social lives.
Steve Turnbull said…
Another excellent, thought-provoking post Steve. I agree it's great that conversation can now occur in so many different ways - like this comment on your post. Another example - I live in France and talked to my mum via FaceTime last night. Brilliant! However I do share Sherry Turkle's fundamental concerns about technology. I think it's displacing the human, face to face contact, that we value most in communication. As with most things (and as I've argued elsewhere on here) balance is the key. But are we so hooked on digital tech that we've forgotten even where this is, let alone knowing how to achieve it?

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