Alone Together: The Fine Art of Nonversation

This is the way the world ends  … not with a bang, but a text message

In her book, Alone Together, social psychologist Sherry Turkle contends that people who devote significant time connecting online are consequently isolated in their non-virtual lives, resulting in emotional disconnection, mental fatigue, and anxiety. Turkle relates the example of the profound harm a breastfeeding mother can do, when texting, while providing nutrition to her unsuspecting baby; warns us of the dangers of smartphones when, having graduated from breastfeeding, damaged, broken and isolated, we inevitably continue to tarnish mealtimes with technology. She completes her cataclysmic vision of the unravelling universe with a graphic description of a bleak Cape Cod landscape, swarming with zombie-like creatures oblivious to the existence of the sea as a result of their morbid screen obsessions.

Proliferating studies assure us that young people would rather text someone than have a real conversation, that online connections with Facebook friends are a calculated retreat from reality, and that our “attentional commitment” to our mobile devices fractures familial intimacy. Typically, such studies advocate for the need for solitude from technology because engagement with online connections is damaging or distinct from “real” relationships. Such studies are typically consumed with frenzied agreement by people who rabidly believe in the intrinsic dangers of technology before they even read them. This is vindication reading. It offers assurance that change is dangerous, the status quo the safer, saner, more informed option. The reality, however, when it comes to understanding connected young people, is best articulated by Young and Well in a recent, comprehensive study, which finds: “rather than sliding into a moral vacuum when they go online, young people draw upon the same moral framework that shapes their offline engagements”. This should not surprise us.

Margie Warrell, author of the book, Find Your Courage, however, also confirms that people are more alone than ever and cautions that “digital communication can never replace in person, face-to-face, contact in building relationships”. Warrell also warns us that online avatars will damage our marriages, our bodies, and our friendships. I don’t think I need to provide further examples of the depraved, post-apocalyptic world being wrought by social media users and online connectivity, but it may help to extrapolate the harrowing portrait further to include kittens that will never be petted, puppies that will never be walked, teeth that will never be brushed, derelict hermits with thousands of virtual friends and followers who will never know love, walk on a beach, know the colour of the sky, or meet their text-addict parents. It’s all good enough justification to keep mobile devices out of schools and ensure that the classrooms of the 21st century should look like those of the 1980’s… when watching TV was the destructive evil of the day.

There is no doubt that there are individuals in the world who are addicted to technology use, who wilfully rescind their connection to reality in favour of the virtual assurance of the online illusion of connectedness. Social maladjustment is not the product of technology use, however, and those who seem so driven to tell us otherwise tend to do so with an evangelical zeal that is at once disturbing and puzzling. In each account that we read, the common thread or theme would seem to be fear of change or a conviction that change is bad and a belief that things used to be so much better in simpler, more innocent times. If the implications of people believing this absurdity were not so significant, it would be entertaining. “Digital communication can never replace in person, face-to-face, contact in building relationships” we are told. When, one wonders, did this issue become an either / or imperative and what kind of thinking makes it so?

It is the element of moral judgment that I find most intriguing when listening to chilling tales of the dangers of tech use – all of it pointing to a shocking lack of wisdom of the younger generation, a benign, clueless replication of how each generation judges the one that comes after it. A case in point is the social frown that is now cast upon what has been termed the nonversation. The Urban Dictionary describes the nonversation as: “a completely worthless conversation, wherein nothing is illuminated, explained or otherwise elaborated upon.” The enlightened tell us that conversation is rendered worthless by people who value online engagement over “real life” connections, screen time over face time. This is typified, reportedly, by couples and entire families sitting in restaurants and bars staring at their iPhones and iPads. For some reason, this elicits moral outrage in some people. One can’t help wondering where this apparent, profound concern for the moral and social welfare of strangers emanates from.

In an excellent blog post in The Huffington Post, Elizabeth Perle reminds us that the internet is actually about connections to people and that, “too many parents willfully alienate themselves from teens due to fear-mongering, technophobic myths that inundate them in mainstream media”. She also quotes Danah Boyd, who, in her book, It’s Complicated, states: “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.” Technology is not making young people anti-social, lonely, vulnerable, or anxious. Those adjectives, curiously enough, may, perhaps, better describe many of the people who harbour such irrational fears.

Fear is the greatest barrier to change and it can be an incredibly powerful emotion, particularly in schools, where change must become a constant if we are to support the ever-changing needs of our students. Scott McLeod has argued convincingly that we must look beyond stories of perpetual fear in order to allow our young people to actively harness the truly awesome potential of the internet. As Will Richardson puts it, we are really not contending with technology at all, but more of a cultural and social shift in our thinking, one that acknowledges that we are living in a “different world … [where young people are] … going to find sex and porn and bad stuff and bad people no matter how hard we try to keep them from it, but when we weigh that fact against the incredible learning potential that the web provides, we’re going to choose to educate rather than try to block and filter it all.” But this logic is at odds with the alarmist thinking of the likes of Turkle who is intent on saving “the lost art of conversation” and the sanctity of being dull and boring, a concept that is alive and well in so many schools today.

The fine art of nonversation is, I hope, here to stay. In a recent piece for Inc. Christina Desmarais quotes a CEO who pointed out that we now have a generation who are never going to stop looking at their phones. “From my experience in working with Millennials, it’s no longer about work-life [balance]. It’s just life,” he says. “They’re always connected.” And so, while we don’t find it acceptable, in my connected household, for family members to be active online during meal time, for instance, we also do not consider it bad manners for someone to check a text or message briefly at such times. Last weekend, while taking a brisk walk on the frigid shore of Lake Ontario, I took out my iPhone to check some emails and text messages, glanced at my Facebook and Twitter feeds, consulted the weather to confirm that my face was, in fact, freezing, and probably even updated my Spotify playlist. Even so, I still found myself moved as a human being by the monument I had stumbled upon to those Irish migrants who died on these shores during the Great Famine. I even had the wherewithal to use my phone to capture the image included with this post. Despite my connectedness, I was capable of feeling, of seeing, of being alive. I shared the image with online friends and it led to several interesting conversations with real people.

I admit to counting myself among those connected individuals who relish the opportunity to go online when I sit down in a public place for a drink or a meal. In fact, when we go out as a family, it is not uncommon for us to be a Kindle-reading, iPad-gaming, iPhone-surfing, conformity-kicking, collection of troubled, anti-social concerns, the kinds of people worthy of some tut-tut, head-shaking, disapproval. The fact is, our relationships are, I believe, deepened and enriched by our online connections. The myth that surrounds social media and web connectedness is that it is somehow distinct from the real world when, in fact, it is simply an extension of existing relationships. Social networking actually helps people to extend and strengthen social connections, providing deeper emotional and social contacts in the process. Like the students in our schools, we share what we read, we discuss what we discover, we are connected whenever we feel the need. Having a good nonversation is an art and one I am proud to engage in. We really shouldn’t care if it offends the sensibilities of others.

It’s not distinct from who we are; it’s part of who we are.