There’s plenty of talk in America, but unfortunately not as much conversation.
Talk radio hosts, conspiracy theorists, sports announcers, political pundits, influencers, people who write management and self-help books, reality television stars, actors, talent judges, sports stars, duck hunters, hucksters, populists.
As Umberto Eco opined: “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”
Social media gives the fuzzy, dopamine-laden illusion of a connection, without any of the benefits. Platforms use roughly the same logic as casino slot machines (the Skinner Box theory of operant conditioning – pull the right lever, get a reward).
The decline of conversation is a great loss because conversation sparks ideas and helps people grow. It makes us think; it makes us better.
That’s true even though conversation, in its truest shape, doesn’t have a purpose – one of its greatest joys. This might be a reason for its decline. Many things are so purposeful these days. There needs to be a return on the investment of time. A clear destination. And information needs to be fast, digestible, forgettable.
Or people just shirk the work of conversation. They can’t be bothered to do the slow back and forth – the excavating, the patient turning over of new ground.
It’s so much easier to passively engage with a bright screen. All thumbs, no mind, and the slow drifting into a somnambulist state.
Then there are fear and control. Conversations require vulnerability and honesty. To have one requires patience and openness.
Screens allow us to create “perfect” versions of ourselves. We can think of a smart come-back, the right emoji, the most flattering picture. And we can seek out people who think like us. We shout in echo chambers, listening to our thoughts bouncing back, unaltered by dissent or challenge.
Mark Twain said, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” Indeed, instant and ever-present communication tools have allowed us to connect shallowly, but have hampered our capacity for real face-to-face conversations.
Heidegger probably had it right when he observed that technology makes us at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“My position is not anti-technology, it’s pro-conversation,” said Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self in an interview at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival. Turkle believes technology is an important part of modern life, but also that people need time away from their phones to cultivate the best relationships with other people. She argues there should be spaces in everyone’s home and life with no phones at all.
She said these “conversations should be open-ended and spontaneous, conversations in which we play with ideas.”
Tech-enabled communication makes “conversation” more efficient, but it strips it of meaning and depth. Our empathy shrivels, and we lose the feeling of true connection, which only happens when we can hear each other, read each other’s body language, and see the flickering subtleties of facial expressions. We not only lose knowledge of others, but also knowledge of self.
“Good conversations are kinetic and collaborative. They are much like pieces of symphonic music where everyone must contribute to the harmony and rhythm and meld their notes together,” Turkle said.
“Sometimes you have a latent insight you don’t even know you have, and can’t articulate, and then someone said something that unearths it and you feel a light bulb go off in your head. Sometimes you have a fragment of an idea that you can’t fully make sense of; then when you share it, someone else makes a connection you hadn’t thought of and builds on it, and the whole group gets to enjoy the newly birthed insight.
“When it works, conversation can be an incredibly creative endeavor.”
How does a city spark conversations?
It celebrates the places and people that create connections and introduce ideas worth talking about.
One such place is the Contemporary Arts Center.
Conversations are an art, and art uniquely fuels conversation – by creating new ways of seeing the world and deepening the human experience, said David Cave, the new chief of advancement at CAC.
“Conversation is the coming together of parts,” he said.
“Conversation is both an individual and collective pursuit. I come as myself, but treat others as subject – distinctly themselves, but now within a relationship we forged. Which is also proof of the maxim, that if two people in a conversation always agree, one of the two is not necessary.”
Contemporary art is seldom agreeable or concerned with pleasantries. It challenges our views, like all good conversation, and allows us to wander beyond what we know, adding color and sustenance and joy to a city’s intellectual and civic flourishing.
“That’s where the CAC is unique as conversation starter,” Cave said. “It infects the city with ideas that lead to conversations that shape new states of being.”
Conversations make communities flourish and grow.
So let’s celebrate all the things and places that start them: the ideas, the diversity, the art, the music, the dance, the parks, the strangers, the familiar.
We are wonderful and diverse. We are one. And we can learn so much if we simply look up and see each other.
Theo Erasmus is founder at brand strategy consultancy Timbuctoo, a collective think tank committed to the art of business and the business of art.
He has worked in human rights activism, advertising, the original
dot-com boom, innovation and as founder of three companies, along with forays into journalism, from the South African crime beat to NY culture.
He’s an adviser/supporter at Wave Pool Art Gallery, a trustee at the Contemporary Art Center, a committee member for This Time Tomorrow Performance Festival and resident of The House of Beautiful Business.
This essay is part of a series exploring the intersection of business, community and the arts.