There sure is a lot of anger being vented publicly in America these days. This is true whether one chooses to focus on politics and our nasty and seemingly endless primary campaigns or on college campuses where issues relating to racial inclusiveness and policies regarding sexual assault have led to considerable divisiveness, with shrill rhetoric spewing forth at high volume on a regular basis.
Given the serious issues at stake both in society at large and on our campuses, neither the anger nor the sharp tone of public discourse is totally surprising, of course, but one powerful factor shaping such discussions is: the increasing prominence of digital culture and communication. Simply put, substantive – and civil – discussion and debate are more and more difficult to achieve in a wired world.
Media researcher Sherry Turkle of MIT captures many such difficulties in her important new book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” According to Turkle, who has been writing about digital media for decades, one of the most pernicious effects of our wired, online culture is that we have forgotten how to have a real conversation, whether face-to face or public.
In a country where multitasking is the norm, where the typical adult checks a smart phone every 6.5 minutes, where people admit to texting during sex and where baby bouncers and even potty seats are now designed with slots for digital devices, it’s hard to find time to engage with anyone in a sustained way on anything.
The roots of the word conversation, as Turkle points out, suggest coming together or leaning toward another, acts that are difficult to do when one is doing numerous things with many people on several devices at once. In our texting world, what we now have increasingly is a population continuously but only partially attentive to anyone or anything.
Many college students, Turkle finds, commonly “work” with four or more media going at once – maybe Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – while also doing online reading for a class. Is it any wonder that people tend to scream in order to break through and get heard?
Unfortunately, even when they succeed, it is increasingly unlikely that their message will resonate with the intended target. For as Turkle also points out, without regular face-to-face conversations, we increasingly lose the ability to empathize with others, much less to engage their views. Indeed, we seem to be detaching from people even when we’re ostensibly with them.
Who hasn’t been at a dinner table at which everyone has a smart phone handy and several people are apt to be wielding theirs at any particular time, leaving their dinner “partners” high and dry? And even face-to-face conversation, when it occurs, can be deceiving. After all, we now live in a world in which the dictionary now includes a new word “phubbing,” which means maintaining eye contact with someone while texting. Try it some time.
In his 2010 book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr argued that the widespread use of digital media was actually changing humans’ neuro systems, leaving us less able to concentrate and focus in sustained ways on anything. Turkle is more optimistic about our ability to turn back the digital tide, as it were, and to learn to manage digital culture by placing discrete limits around it – if we only had the will.
I’m more pessimistic than Turkle is about restraining the encroachment of digital culture on more people and on more aspects of our lives. Not to romanticize pre-digital times, but people today get bored easily, are afraid to be alone and are uncomfortable with the spontaneity and messiness involved in unedited human communications and civil, sober public dialogue and debate. Hence, part of the reason that we do face-to-face increasingly badly.
To more and more people these days, texting or tweeting seems a lot easier than talking, especially when dealing with tough topics. Going online provides a quick way out, and digital media are akin to comfort food – or perhaps even junk food – in insecure, even scary times.
So get ready for more online noise, private and public, going forward. In our nonstop, wired, news-crawl world, surface tweets “Trump” deeper forms of communication almost every time. Better to limit oneself to 140 characters than to expose oneself to open-ended, face-to-face conversation or to strive for substantial, nuanced and empathetic exchanges in either private or public life.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.