I see it everywhere I go these days. In restaurants, on buses, while waiting in line at a store. People looking down and staring at screens. As phones have become more than just phones, our addiction to them has taken on epidemic proportions. There are no boundaries any longer. We stop mid-stream in conversation to glance at an incoming message. We take our phones out to compulsively check for messages and updates whenever we have a free minute, or, as is more often the case, even if we don’t.
This is not an indictment of technology and its ‘evils’. I am as grateful as the next person for the kind of on-the-go connectivity and productivity that technology has made possible today. And I know how hard it is to resist the pull of a lit-up screen or the ping of a new mail message. But you don’t have to be a Luddite to acknowledge that our fixation with our devices is intruding on our lives in ways that are not entirely healthy.
One area that is clearly affected is conversation. In homes across the globe, dinner table discussions are now routinely hijacked by phones, tablets and other personal devices. In an age dominated by texting and chat apps, we seem to be losing the ability to have real conversations. We connect easily and often and have developed a knack for rapid-fire responses through digital media but we are less comfortable when it comes to offline reflection and discussion.
To counter this trend, experts such as psychologist Sherry Turkle are calling for a movement to ‘reclaim conversation’.
As Turkle points out, an ‘over-reliance on devices is harming our ability to have valuable face-to-face conversations.’ That is unfortunate because it is in open-ended and spontaneous conversation that intimacy is born; and from where creativity and collaboration can take off. In some cases, it could change the world. JD Salinger’s chat with his editor or John Lennon’s rumored pow-wow with Bob Dylan, for example, may have changed the course of literary and rock and roll history respectively.
We need to find ways to bring back open-ended, spontaneous conversations in which we give each other our full attention. Conversation is the most humanizing thing we do. We can’t be so busy connecting that we don’t have time to talk.