Outside the Whale: Lost Art of Conversation


You feel the vibration in your pocket. You reach for your phone and realize it’s on the counter. The feeling is called “Phantom Buzz” and research says it’s just one in many ways that smartphones are re-wiring our brains.

May’s Atlantic magazine has an article asking if our constant connection to Facebook is making us lonely. Newsweek (July) is more dire, claiming that social networks are literally making us crazy. A recent New Yorker cover has a drawing of a vacationing family of four staring into their smartphones as paradise behind them goes unobserved.

I’m not sure when they overtook the culture of their time, if articles asked if television made us lonely or if moving from horse-drawn carriages to steel-encased cars increased anxiety, but I think there is no denying that technology, when overused, can lead to isolation.

When I was young I remember going into relatives’ and friends’ houses where the television was always blaring. My father would come home and rant about the “boob tube” and how there is no conversation “these days,” but I was a child then so I didn’t experience the living room’s transition from a place for beverage and laughter and conversation to where the television served as the guest of honor. I simply didn’t appreciate how rude it was for a host to ignore their company and expect that their guests become hypnotized with them in front of the light of the box.

I appreciate it now. I have given up on women my age who are so addicted to texting that we can’t have a sustained conversation over coffee. Now that the kids are older and no longer the source of constant interruption, my contemporaries have found this new disruptor whose beeps draw them away faster than a crying child and whose cyber needs they find far more engaging than physical company.

After Canton’s Honor Guard buried its 400th solider, Veterans Agent Tony Andreotti invited his guard, as is his tradition, to the Honey Dew up on Neponset Street. Bob DeYeso, who is of my father’s generation, sang an old World War II song. Eyes rolled and Tony’s band gibed Mr. DeYeso in a style that comes only with the kind of relationship you get when you spend endless hours with someone. The men and one woman, Arline Love, their bugler, sipped coffee and talked and laughed and reminisced. Not one stared into a cell phone. Never were they distracted by the television in the far off corner. They were able to give all their attention and energies to each other, as if doing so was natural.

Veterans enjoying a conversation without modern distractions

Maybe my generation, who grew up with the television in the middle of the living room, never developed the art of conversation to the extent our parents did, and so maybe we have no immunization against flashing technologies.

In the 1980s cocaine was everywhere. In a decade when working endless hours was associated with importance, cocaine had prestige. It kept you up and going, but it didn’t take long before we also saw the consequences. Cell phones are this era’s efficiency drug. But the energy we lose by never being in the now scrambles our focus. In our effort to be efficient, we are left sick and exhausted, but we keep using.

The Newsweek article says there is a growing belief that being constantly wired accelerates our lives to addictive speeds. To cope, we’ve become a society on anxiety medications, which we accept because they are doctor prescribed and therefore must be okay. The article claims a couple was so pre-occupied with gaming that they failed to feed their baby, while others have gotten blood clots from sitting too long. It says cyber use promotes OCD and ADHD. Psychiatry next year will officially recognize cyber addiction as a disorder, and there is increasing evidence that the devices are re-wiring the way our brains work, making us unable to think deeply about important issues.

This isn’t to say that Facebook and our “social networks” cannot be used as tools to help us invest in our relationships. Experts in social media in the Atlantic article say they can do that, and I think those of us who use them agree. But like alcohol, which is a wonderful tool to relax and be social with, moderation is the key. A smartphone is much like television — it can bring us the world, but we have to use it in cautionary doses. The real world is what’s in front of us. We just have to pick our heads up out of the hand-held flashing box long enough to see it.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed watching Tony Andreotti’s honor guard having coffee with each other and talking and laughing right after a funeral. They take life in the present. Maybe, after a certain age and after you burry so many, you know full well that the now as well as the here is all we have.

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avatar Posted by on Aug 1 2012. Filed under Featured Content, Opinion, Outside the Whale. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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