I was at a conference last week and we were discussing the constraints on reinventing the workplace and shifting from a world of top-down “telling people what to do” to a world of conversation and interactive adult-to-adult conversations.
One of the participants said that she saw as a constraint that the younger generation didn’t know how to have a conversation any longer. They were so busy tweeting and texting that they no longer knew how to talk to someone face-to-face.
Then I saw that Sherry Turkle has come out with a new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011). According to the book's PR, “Turkle 's prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.” And according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Alone Together is a brilliant, profound, stirring, and often disturbing portrait of the future by America’s leading expert on how computers affect us as humans.”
A powerful antidote to this emerging conventional wisdom that computers kill real conversation can be found in John Hagel’s brilliant review of the movie, The Social Network. Hagel argues that the movie makes the case that the real tragedy, according to the movie, is that the social network catalyzed by Zuckerberg is replacing real relationships with superficial relationships for everyone. In order to make this case, the movie had to change the facts to fit the story. In show business terms, they succeeded brilliantly because this is the story that the establishment wants to hear.
The mainstream media, especially Hollywood, is all about status, so it can relate in a visceral and powerful way to this theme. But the movie is ultimately about new technology platforms that are undermining traditional forms of status and creating global foundations for new forms of status. And mainstream media can really relate to this. As the mainstream media crumbles, wrestling with loss of audience, corresponding loss of advertisers and never-ending rounds of layoffs of creative talent, people in this industry are deeply aware of the revolution playing out around them.
What to make of this revolution? To accept it as profound and enriching would be too difficult. On a deeply personal level, it is tragic. A way of life that mainstream media participants were brought up to admire and aspire to is dissolving. But the narrative of The Social Network is not that it is tragic for those who achieved status the old way. Rather, it is tragic for the revolutionaries. They are achieving what they wanted, but finding it empty. This is the real message of the movie and deeply satisfying to those on the mainstream media ramparts watching the hordes gather for the final assault on the old regime.
Hagel’s deeper point is that this narrative is basically untrue. The supposed age of real conversations never really existed except in isolated pockets of society that emerged for brief moments.
The reality is that what is emerging in the world of Twitter and blogs is much richer, profounder and fuller than almost any of us have experienced in face-to-face to conversation in the pre-social media period.
This is so for a number of reasons:
- We can draw on the entire population of the world to converse with, regardless of geography. (In the past, conversation was limited to the few people who happened to be in the room.)
- We can find like-minded people with startling ease. (In the past, with such a small population to talk to, it was often hard to find like-minded people.)
- We can immense amounts of high quality discussion on any subject at any time. (In the past, one was lucky to find a high quality conversation once a year, let alone once an hour.)
True, one can use social media for totally trivial purposes, But the opportunity to have real conversations with interesting people is now available to anyone in the world at any time in an unprecedented fashion. And many people are in fact taking advantage of it. Overall, conversation-wise, we are immeasurably better off.
So let’s stop hearing this utter nonsense that computers have killed real conversation.