The Impact of Tech on Our Conversations - The Smartphone (Part 1 of 3)
In this three-part series, here’s the first piece that looks at how tech – the smartphone, the Internet, and other corollary technologies – has changed the nature of our conversation.
I don’t know about you, but when I leave home, I seem frequently to be forgetting my wallet and keys. Except for one calamitous lapse, I never leave without my smartphone. It goes everywhere with me. The automatic reach for the phone as we join even the smallest queue – rather than engage with other strangers in the line or observing what’s happening around us – is killing the practice of conversation. Completely banning the use of a smartphone is neither practical nor desirable, but curbing our instincts for immediate distraction or gratification takes intention and self-discipline. Even schools today struggle to teach the outgoing digital native kids how to manage the tech, although our kids are often the first to call out us parents for overuse of the phone. If we don’t master our habits, we must acknowledge that we’ll suffer. As connected as we may pretend to be, by getting sucked into our smartphone, we are cutting ourselves off from the most basic and deeply necessary forms of connection, with ourselves, nature, strangers and our friends and family.
This is the first of 3 segments that will investigate the role of ‘new’ technology in impacting/harming our ability to have more meaningful conversation. This first article will focus on the smartphone, the Internet in general and other corollary tech. In parts 2 and 3, I’ll look specifically and respectively at social media and Artificial Intelligence. Because the phone is a material object and acts as a gateway to so many technologies, it’s in a class of its own. At the end of this piece, you’ll find five actionable points related to what you can do to help have more purposeful and profound discussion.
It’s the tech’s fault?
One of the most common comments I hear about the poor state of conversations in society today is the noxious effect of technology. Epistemologically, considering we humans are responsible for creating the technology, I have long said that it’s the fault of the users, not the technology. But then I realized that could make me sound like I support the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) claim that, to avoid banning machine guns, it’s not the guns that kill people but the people shooting the guns. The issues with tech are manifold and vary massively according to the generation that’s wielding the tech. Just as there are medications that can both heal and be poisonous, pharmakon as the Ancient Greeks called them, the French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, identified the Internet and the smartphone as pharmakon, able to be good and bad, depending on how they’re used. It strikes me that most of us are naively using these technologies, blithely unaware of just how insidiously poisonous they can be, especially for our ability to connect through meaningful conversation.
Under the covers
I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water when talking about technology’s impact on conversation. It must be nuanced. And there are plenty of benefits. Kate Murphy, in her book, “You’re Not Listening,” wrote:
“Technology does not so much interfere with listening as make it seem unnecessary. Our devices indulge our fear of intimacy by fooling us into thinking that we are socially connected, even when we are achingly alone. We avoid the messiness and imperfections of others, retreating into the relative safety of our devices, swiping and deleting with abandon.”
– Conclusion of You’re Not Listening, by Kate Murphy
As Murphy intimates, under the covers, there’s something more profound going on with the way we use tech. Our behaviors and habits reveal other symptoms that lie beneath the surface, including such issues as a lack of fulfilment, confidence or self-understanding, a sense of abandonment or deeper fears of failure, rejection, and death. Our dependence on tech is far from irrational. A 2019 study by the global tech care company, Asurion, showed that Americans check their phones on average 96 times per day, which converts into once every 10 minutes of our awake day! The 18- to 24-year-old group checks their phones at double the national average (i.e. once every five minutes). And these are just averages, meaning that there are many that are doing so even more frequently. When we need to consult our phone so manically, to pull it out in even a one-minute queue or as we relieve ourselves, we’re clearly signaling a dependency, if not addiction. We prefer to consult our phone rather than do other vital activities. And this smartphone habit doesn’t take into account the amount of time spent on other screens, such as the laptop/desktop or tablet.
The omnipresence of the phone…
The smart phone is by definition personal and is virtually always near at hand. But its omnipresence has a corrupting effect on our conversation. Even when two close friends with the best intentions are catching up after a long absence, if they know there’s a smartphone nearby (e.g. face down on the table or in the pocketbook), it will take up mental space. Research in the University of Chicago Journals stated that, “[r]esults from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.” In other words, just knowing that the phone is nearby has a tendency to relieve us our cognitive abilities. Can we thus say it’s diminishing our smarts?
Smart perhaps, but not a phone
These days, there is great irony in calling the smartphone a phone at all. Smart perhaps. But phone? The word ‘smartphone’ reminds me of the mobile phone operator, Carphone Warehouse, a name that quickly became obsolete (although it took until 2021 to die completely). I don’t know about you, but the number of times I use my smartphone as a bona fide phone over the cellular network (as in “POTS”) is decidedly rare. Yet, it’s the central nervous system of my communications throughout the day. And as a phone, meanwhile, it’s hardly the best way to have a conversation. On the one hand, the bandwidth reserved for cellular service (through a narrow bandwidth and licensed frequencies) is often less than the data bandwidth because the money lies in data transmission. Thus the connection can be less stable. Secondly, phone calls on the mobile are often done on the move, where background noise can disturb the flow and impede comprehension. Because a meaningful conversation happens in the nuance, much of the meaning can thus get lost through poor transmission.
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Smartphone as the intel inside
One thing that separates the young from the old generations is that those born just before or since the turn of the century have never known a life without smartphone. With the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, the smartphone quickly become omnipresent and increasingly embedded in our lives. But most of us were not “trained” on the smartphone. We adopted it along the way. If we could all stop to think of what it represents – and what’s driving its use – that would already be a small victory. The smartphone has become at once our memory, connection to our friends, family and work, a camera and photo album, directions, access to transportation, and now it’s become our wallet. For some, it’s also already morphed into our digital home keys and a portal for managing our home. There’s much to laud about the attitude and talents of the new Generation Z, including having a healthy habit of quizzing if not changing the way we approach work and consumption. However, we can also observe that the attachment to the screen (mobile or laptop) has materially reduced the in-contact, face-to-face communications. As we all know, a Zoom call is not a perfect replacement for in-person meetings. A friend of mine recounted recently how sad he was to put his son (15) on a train with his two best friends and that, while waiting together on the quay, were texting one another rather than talking normally together. My daughter will invariably say she was “chatting” with her friends when she means texting, as if they were one and the same.
Small talk and gossip
“Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack
If you’ve got nothing new to say.”
-New Speedway Boogie, Robert Hunter lyricist for The Grateful Dead
As much as I seek to encourage more meaningful conversation, there’s no denying the use – if not necessity – of small talk as an amuse bouche before plunging into deeper subjects. Another way of connecting is via gossip (defined as talking about people in their absence) that doesn’t generally fit the bill of meaningful conversation. It often gets a bad rap, but many scientists point to the social benefits of such talk. Analysis published in 2019 by Megan Robbins in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed that only 15% of the gossip was negative. The anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, who coined the Dunbar 150, related in this paper, published in General Psychology, that conversation and gossips gave us the ability to bond and share valuable information within our social networks. Dunbar concluded that “gossip, in the broad sense of conversation about social and personal topics, is a fundamental prerequisite of the human condition. Were we not able to engage in discussions of these issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do.” But when you take these exchanges online, it’s not so simple.
Taking gossip online
The chat that happens via an instant messaging app (Whatsapp, Messenger, Wechat…) certainly contains small talk and gossip. However, the challenge with typed chats is that they are not nuanced with smiles, smirks, laughs and looks. Secondly, when they are sent back and forth over the Internet, they can be captured and re-shared. They’re far from private. The most meaningful and profound conversations must happen in mutual trust and with a measure of security, if not secrecy. Thirdly, typed chats require a type of cognitive work that is distanced from our true, emotional and emotive self. I can hear the younger generations crying out and claiming the authenticity and “humanity” of their exchanges. Of course, there are many people who engage in deeper exchanges via tech (especially useful when there is no way to bridge the distance otherwise). However, chats online are often bound for misinterpretation, and never give the whole picture, if even the communicants have a grip on what that looks like. Our attention is rarely fully focused on the other. Most of the time, we’re multi-messaging if not multitasking.
Pick me up!
With the ever-perceptible vibrations, the flashing light or the noisy ring tones, we all perk up in Pavlovian style to notifications coming from anyone’s phone. Even when it’s in silent mode and stashed in a pocket or handbag, it’s within reach whenever the need strikes. For example, there’s the: “Oh, just let me show this crazy photo I have;” or “I can’t remember her name, so let me check on Facebook;” or again “let me just verify some fact on Google.” As clinical psychologist and sociologist professor at MIT, Sherry Turkle, has underlined, it’s not just that we misuse technology, we have come to use it in so many instances where don’t need to. Rather than show the photo, why not describe. Rather than share a video, relate the story.
Access to Google
As soon as we have access to Google – including via any voice-activated Internet requests – it’s all too easy to abdicate from having to remember a name, fact or figure and to let the fingers do the talking (as said in the Bell Yellow Pages ad that ran in the 1980s). As a result, we don’t work optimally our brain and memory muscles. We satisfy our immediate gratification and destroy all anticipation and dispel any sense of doubt. Yet, Google isn’t always right and the answer doesn’t always pop out immediately. Moreover, in such instances, we rarely check the sources and evaluate inherent biases. Rather than allowing our collective analogue heads to come together, we rely on Google to know it all, all the while serving up an advertisement or two. Hardly a basis for meaningful exchange.
The “smart” phone as a listening device
Our phones have extraordinary and ever expanding abilities. Like our brains, we probably only ever use a fraction of what’s available (think about the inactive apps that sit idle on the phone’s back pages). Unless you’re sharp with your settings (I suggest this useful Business Insider article), it’s very possible that your phone is tracking your movements and listening in on your exchanges. It’s a listening device, which has good and bad things about it. On the positive side, you can listen to all manner of content: audiobooks, podcasts, radio, music… You can consume video and play games. On the bad side, it – and all the apps within – is designed to keep us captive. Its business model (operators, apps…) resides on interaction, usage and your attention. User beware!
Need they tell the rest of the world?
“Hello! Can you hear me?” comes a loud voice sitting in the seat directly behind you in the train.
“Hi? Can you hear me now?... What about now?”
In such situations, I’m always tempted to reply out loud, ‘yes, I bloody well can!’ Whenever I’m on public transportation and I hear the audible pings of a neighbor’s phone, I inevitably get annoyed. (What does that say about me? I ask). I get even more irritated by fellow travelers engaging in prolonged calls, where the vast majority of these conversations could surely have waited for later. For me, these audible notifications and loud telephone calls typically reflect either a sad message of “Look everyone, I exist” and/or a completely smug disregard for public civility. Even the hard of hearing should know that notifications should be silenced in public transportation. Sadly, many people have not gotten the message. I feel this persistent type of behavior shows how we have lost our sense of civism.
Listening is at the heart of good conversation
Above, I have been addressing the many ways a smartphone interrupts us and impedes us from having profound discussions. When we go back to what is a meaningful conversation, I like to underscore that it involves deep listening not just to the words, but to the emotions, reading the silent expressions and peering into the gaps in meaning. Based on that understanding, the good listener will ask probing questions to flesh out the story. As much as we might complement our words in a text message with emojis, these do not compensate for our most social intercourse that is face-to-face, eyes-into-eyes, with twitches, ticks, and tremors that speak volumes above the words being uttered. On top of the fact that many emojis are confusing (at least for us older folk), we’re losing our practice of talking the old fashioned way.
The old-fashioned conversation
Having a heart-to-heart, uninterrupted conversation may at times appear to be a luxury. We can’t do so all the time. But there are many benefits to carving out time for these face-to-face talks. For one, it takes practice to know how to engage with people in a protracted conversation. Listening, like practicing empathy, is a muscle that gets better with use. Listening to others’ stories will widen your scope, help develop your empathy and provide you with insights and anecdotes in your ongoing life.
Human signals in a conversation
Unlike the brevity or efficiency of a text, a proper conversation involves indulging each other’s foibles, ‘ums and ‘ers, our stumbles, quirky looks and ticks, as well as our body odors. In-person conversations mean embracing and sharing our messiness, connecting in spite of our imperfections. As pointed out in this article by Melanie Chan in The Conversation, “Face-to-face conversation is a rich experience that involves drawing on memories, making connections, making mental images, associations and choosing a response. Face-to-face conversation is also multisensory: it’s not just about sending or receiving pre-programmed trinkets such as likes, cartoon love hearts and grinning yellow emojis.”
Our authentic selves
In the face of calls for more transparency and authenticity in business, I can’t help but feel that these exact traits are what we’re missing in ourselves. As we seek to unearth the “truth” through total transparency, is it not possible that we are missing the truth in ourselves, that we don’t see ourselves. Insofar as we gravitate to authentic leaders, is it not possible that it reflects a lack of self-knowledge and inner authenticity. Instead, we’re quick to present an Instagrammable version of our lives, careful to reveal a ‘tailored’ image of oneself that’s refined if not perfect. This latent inauthenticity is perhaps at the root of calls for authentic leaders. Our own lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge plays a part in creating inauthentic, unfulfilling and insipid conversations. As we’ll discuss in the next chapter on social media, the notion of authenticity is hard to find.
A decline in empathy
As much as there’s been research (including my own) showing a relative decline in empathy, I see a commensurate increase in the amount of publications (TED, books*, courses…) about the need for (and benefits of) greater empathy. In a 2015 interview in The Atlantic, Turkle said that, “We suppress this capacity [for empathy] by putting ourselves in environments where we’re not looking at each other in the eye, not sticking with the other person long enough or hard enough to follow what they’re feeling.”
The robots are coming
While we may not like to hear this, it seems that robots charged with Artificial Intelligence and a programmer with access to data and who deeply understands Rogerian therapy**, are likely to become good conversationalists. It’s even possible that they could become better conversationalists than many of us human beings. In the spirit of genuine listeners who make the human individual feel listened to, robots aren’t faced with limited bandwidth or time. With ever improving expertise in asking probing questions, intricately related to preceding commentary, AI-infused robots with human similitude will likely provide a tremendous outlet. With so much loneliness and unhappiness out there, connecting with empathic bots may well be the better therapy in the near-term future, in lieu of good old-fashioned conversations between human beings. In a world where so many people feel alone and struggle to feel heard in a cacophony of noise, it is a sad state of affairs, but it may also be our only way out if we don’t as a species figure out how to return to more face-to-face meaningful conversation.
If we don’t master our habits, we must acknowledge that we’ll suffer. As connected as we may pretend to be, by getting sucked into our smartphone, we are cutting ourselves off from the most basic and deeply necessary forms of connection, with ourselves, nature, strangers and our friends and family.
Five things to do right now to help create a healthier environment for more meaningful conversation:
Allow no phones within 5 meters of the dining room table for mealtime.
Make sure your notifications are all on silent all the time (with very rare exceptions for vital and expected communications).
Remove/deactivate all banners (that appear in the lock screen or roll down on the top) and badges (the red circle with numbers above the app).
Talk with strangers on the bus/train – with a keen emphasis on listening to what the other is saying and feeling.
Connect with nature. Lie down on the grass in a park. Go for walks, if possible in the countryside. Put your hands in the dirt whether it’s a potted plant or in a garden. Smell the air and detect the fragrances.
Please lay down any thoughts and reactions, additions or rebuttals you might have to keep the conversation flowing! Thanks for reading and look out for my next episode next Thursday, where I’ll be discussing the specific role of social media in how it’s corrupting our ability to have more meaningful conversations.
DIALOGOS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
*I have contributed with my own book, Heartificial Empathy, but I would like to recommend other valuable sources:
-The Currency of Empathy by Dr Jackie Acho
-Applied Empathy by Michael Ventura
-Empathy: Why It Matters, And How To Get It by Roman Krznaric
-The Empathy Edge by Maria Ross
Please also check out the body of work done by Dr Lidewij Niezink and Edwin Rutsch (Culture of Empathy),
**Rogerian therapy, created by the American psychologist, Carl Rogers (1902-1987), is a therapeutic technique, often described as non-directive, in which the client takes an active, autonomous role in therapy sessions. For more, check out this article in ThoughtCo.