Conversation and Convenience

The more convenience we introduce to conversation, the more we're winnowing away the difficulties that preserve the possibilities of discourse.

A few prefatory remarks: I dislike talking on the phone and generally avoid it if I can. I dislike voice mail even more, a moribund technology that I wish would be discontinued so that those behind the curve don't accidentally use it and expect people to listen to their messages. I am not proud of my attitudes though, despite frequently airing them. These attitudes reflect my fear of being engaged in a conversation I can't control, having to expending my precious time on discourse from another human being that I can't skim through. Not to be overdramatic, but I think I am in some small way psychically murdering those people who are trying to reach me when I refuse to listen to their messages, when I choose my convenience over their relative inarticulateness and the slowness of the technology they have chosen to use. The same goes for timeshifting the act of conversation so that it can cease to be reciprocal and take the form of broadcasting. It's a casual act of cruelty to deny that reciprocity, to withhold the possibility of spontaneous sympathy and understanding.

It makes me think of that section of My Dinner With Andre in which Andre talks about having to endure small talk while he was in the midst of watching his mother die.

ANDRE: [Long pause.] Well, you know, I may be in a very emotional state right now, Wally, but since I've come back home, I've just been finding the world we're living in more and more upsetting. I mean. Last week I went down to the public theater one afternoon. You know, when I walked in I said "hello" to everybody, 'cause I know them all and they all know me, and they're always very friendly. You know that seven or eight people told me how wonderful I looked, and then one person, one, a woman who runs the casting office, said: "Gee, you look horrible! Is something wrong?" Now she, we started talking, of course I started telling her things, and she suddenly burst into tears because an aunt of hers, who's eighty, whom she's very fond of, went into the hospital for a cataract, which was solved, but the nurse was so sloppy she didn't put the bed rails up, so the aunt fell out of bed and is now a complete cripple! So, you know, we were talking about hospitals. Now, you know, this woman, because of who she is, you know, 'cause this had happened to her very, very recently, she could see me with complete clarity. [Wally says "Un-hunh."] She didn't know anything about what I've been going through. But the other people, what they saw was this tan or this shirt, or the fact that the shirt goes well with the tan, so they say: "Gee, you look wonderful!" Now, they're living in an insane dream world! They're not looking. That seems very strange to me.

WALLY: Right, because they just didn't see anything somehow, except the few little things that they wanted to see.

ANDRE: Yeah. You know, it's like what happened just before my mother died. You know, we'd gone to the hospital to see my mother, and I went in to see her. And I saw this woman who looked as bad as any survivor of Auschwitz or Dachau. And I was out in the hall, sort of comforting my father, when a doctor who is a specialist in a problem that she had with her arm, went into her room and came out just beaming. And he said: "Boy! Don't we have a lot of reason to feel great! Isn't it wonderful how she's coming along!" Now, all he saw was the arm, that's all he saw. Now, here's another person who's existing in a dream. Who on top of that is a kind of butcher, who's committing a kind of familial murder, because when he comes out of that room he psychically kills us by taking us into a dream world, where we become confused and frightened. Because the moment before we saw somebody who already looked dead and now here comes a specialist who tells us they're in wonderful shape! I mean, you know, they were literally driving my father crazy. I mean, you know, here's an eighty-two-year-old man who's very emotional, and, you know, if you go in one moment, and you see the person's dying, and you don't want them to die, and then a doctor comes out five minutes later and tells you they're in wonderful shape! I mean, you know, you can go crazy!

WALLY: Yeah, I know what you mean.

ANDRE: I mean, the doctor didn't see my mother. People at the public theater didn't see me. I mean, we're just walking around in some kind of fog. I think we're all in a trance! We're walking around like zombies! I don't think we're even aware of ourselves or our own reaction to things, we're just going around all day like unconscious machines, I mean, while there's all of this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us!

I think our communication devices are making it harder to escape the dream world; it's making us all conversational butchers who deny one another's reality because we can't be bothered to look beyond our own fantasia. And signs of the resultant passive-aggressive hostility seem to be everywhere -- to me anyway, it seems obvious in myself, when I find myself cursing at my phone like I have Tourette's because it tells me there is a voice mail for me to listen to. I know then that I live in an insane dream world.

Not everyone sees it this way. At the Economist's Free Exchange blog, Ryan Avent responds to a Kevin Drum post about hating the phone. Avent defends the drift toward textual communications:

Younger people want to talk on the phone less because the opportunity cost of setting everything else aside is higher, and because the substitutes for phone conversations are better than ever.

At any given moment, I'm carrying on many, many different conversations. Some of these conversations are conducted through blog arguments. Others, via email. Still others take place using instant messaging or Twitter. Other people use other modes—Facebook, Flickr, comment threads, and probably other social network tools I've not heard of. But what all these options have in common is that the participants in the discussions can engage in them at their convenience. I can return an email whenever I have a spare moment....

A phone call, on the other hand, requires both participants to be talking to each other in real time.... time spent on a constrictive phone call is time not spent on the many other conversations an individual has going.

Of course, this takes some getting used to. What is actually an increase in productivity feels to those used to long phone calls like an overwhelming and thought eviscerating wave of distraction. Plus, it's hard to hear over cell phones! But if phone calls feel burdensome to young people, it's because they're often actually burdensome. And the conversion of a convenience into a burden is representative, above all else, of progress.

Here I must disagree with Avent. I don't regard the experience of convenience or lack of it as an automatic indication of "progress." I think putting a private illusion of productivity ahead of the fostering of a shared psychic space through conversation is a terrible mistake, an inhumane selfishness that our gadgets make all too easy for us to indulge. I don't think the ability to conduct "conversations" at our convenience is especially beneficial. It erodes the very concept of social reciprocity, of necessarily willed attention in the moment, even if it is against one's inclination. If there is to be a meaningful public sphere, it requires resistance, friction, argument, confrontation. It requires inconvenience, the inconvenience of focusing our attention most of all. It requires the difficulty that Jonah Lehrer talks about here with regard to e-readers.

I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.

Difficulty prompts contemplation. It disrupts the insane dream world; it forbids the caustic solipsism that ultimately doesn't even serve ourselves, but shuts us in a crypt of incomparable and thus impotent self-regard.

The more convenience we introduce to conversation, the more we're winnowing away the difficulties that preserve the possibilities of discourse. Instead we get a simulation of communication that precludes a confrontation with anything outside the dream world, and makes sure that the world we share with others will not change in any meaningful way. Convenient communication lets existing power relations further entrench themselves; the convenience assures that discussions of their inequity can never be broached.

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