Was There Ever A Golden Age of Conversation?

by Matthew Stollak on Friday, September 28, 2018

The Killeen Chair of Theology and Philosophy Lecture Series kicked off its theme of "Technology and Community"with Dr. Carol Bruess discussing "Our Love-Affair With Technology: Some (Inconvenient) Truths."

Given the topic, it was not surprising to hear both the positive and negative aspects of technology.  From the McCann study that indicated that 53% of people aged 16-22 would rather give up their sense of smell than their phone or laptop, to the rise of "technoference" - everyday intrusions and interruptions due to technology devices, people have, perhaps, developed too much of a symbiotic relationship with their smart phones.

Dr. Bruess relied heavily on the work of HR Happy Hour favorite, Sherry Turkle, to discuss the increasing role technology has played in making us feel that much more lonely:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.” ~ Sherry Turkle, ― Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other

However, after the talk I was left with a number of questions to ponder:

Is this necessarily a new phenomenon?

Robert Puttnam, in his book "Bowling Alone (2001)" was already documenting the decline of social capital and increasing isolation, prior to the rise of smart phones, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Are we simply substituting one distraction for another?

Dr. Bruess relayed a number of anecdotes about a child competing for his/her parent's attention at the dinner table with Mom and Dad's face buried in their phone. However, is this any different than Mom and Dad reading the newspaper at the breakfast table (a common occurrence at my home)?  Is the parent checking sports updates on their device at a child's soccer game any different from the Sports Pager of a decade ago, or a parent knitting or reading a book at the event?

Was there ever a golden age of conversation?

A classic scene from "Back to the Future" shows Marty McFly going back into time to the 1950s and ending up at the home of his mom as a teenager.  The family is gathering for dinner, when the TV is rolled out and the Dad tells everyone to quiet down so they can watch "The Jackie Gleason" show. 

Were city buses or subways these Algonquin Round Table-style settings of rich conversation prior to the rise of smart phones?  When I went to the doctor's office in 1979, I don't recall any rich discussions over Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, just a bunch of magazines and people silently waiting their turn.  The only difference today is Fox News blaring on the TV in the background as people shun those magazines (probably from 1979) for their phones.

Even in 1887, the sociologist Frederick Tonnies discussed the comparison of the communal Gemeinschaft versus the much more impersonal Gesellschaft.

Are the loneliness and distraction really that different from decades ago?  Is our love affair with technology really to blame?


Great Post! I am an HR working in a fast-growing IT company. The daily difficulties I faced is that employees in the workspace react to human resource management way different than the old days. For example, people use slack to communicate with each other. As an HR myself, the biggest issue for me is to retain talented employees. Tracking their feedback through employee satisfaction surveys once a year does not work towards my benefit.

Learning to work with technology helped me to get a better understanding of how people are working and reacting to each other. I recommend Slack plugins like Moodbit that sends me regular reports on the team’s emotion through emotion-sensing AI technology.
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