Diversions and Distractions – Gerald Haigh’s thoughts on conversation through technology

The following post is written by Gerald Haigh, and explores the resistance to change that can be evident when there is a paradigm shift in the way we communicate with one another. Obviously this has clear parallels in the classroom, where the best method for presenting and communicating new information to and between students is hotly debated - particularly the role that technology can play. Over to Gerald...

The return to UK television of the drama/comedy ‘Cold Feet’ was preceded by the opportunity, eagerly seized in this household, to see again the original version, which ran for 32 episodes between November 1998 and March 2003.

To me, that turn-of-the-century time seems just the other day, and yet the programme showed so much that was different then.

Take phones for example. Yes, the characters had mobiles in later episodes, but not smartphones, and they were far from anchored to them. In fact they seemed only to use their phones to make calls when the need arose. (How primitive was that?)

Now, of course, it’s all;

‘Just look at those kids! Every single one is looking at their phone. They’re not talking to each other.’

So, in those few years between the turn of the millennium and now, we have seen the death of face-to-face conversation.

Really? Some experts think so. Author and researcher Sherry Turkle, a professor of psychology at MIT, has spent much of her working  life studying and writing about the relationships between the digital world and human behaviour. Her main target currently seems to be the distracting effect of smartphones – a TED Talk, a book, ‘Reclaiming Conversation’, and many interviews, including a long one in ‘The Guardian’ headed, ‘I am not anti-technology, I am pro-conversation’ in which she speaks of,

‘…a breakdown of empathy between children, in the consequences of increasingly distracted family interaction and a growing need for constant stimulus.’

It’s not an original stance, yet in her case it’s supported by a wealth of interviews and observations. Among these, interestingly, she detects a growing feeling among people, including the school/college generation, of wishing they were less enthralled by their phones, a vague hope for something better to come. Her book, ‘Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age’ speaks of college students who express conflicting positions,

‘One man goes from saying, “All my texting is logistical. It’s just a convenience” to admitting that he can’t follow most dinner conversations because he feels such pressure to keep up with his phone.’

The best hope, according to Professor Turkle, is a return to conversation, driven gradually by an already detectable realisation that the power of talk and reflection will ultimately overcome the allure of ever more desirable devices.

Or, perhaps, despite the persuasive diligence of her work, things are not as bad as she fears? IT teacher and systems manager Bud Hunt, who blogs as ‘Bud the Teacher’ having heard Sherry Turkle speak in April was doubtful about the the dichotomy which she set up between digital and face-to-face conversation.

‘It felt like she was dissing writing…..The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.'

What’s important, he says, is to focus on the content.

‘I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.’

People certainly do have lively, empathetic conversations digitally, particularly by text. Anyone whose family, like mine, is separated by distance sees that in action every day. A stream of what sometimes becomes in-joke lunacy enriched by emojis, corrections and exclamations cuts right across Sherry Turkle’s argument that digital communication is polished and edited.

That said, her work and conclusions cut right to the heart of a debate that’s always current and capable of provoking high emotions. ‘Distraction’ is a commonly used argument against allowing smartphones in school, for example. For that reason, she’s required reading for anyone with an interest in the nature and future of communication – ‘the C in ICT’.

Finally, though, for a sense of proportion I turn to a blog by Cathy Davidson, drawn to my attention by a Tweet from Graham Brown-Martin in which he references her article, ‘The History of Distraction, 4000 BCE to the Present’:

She, in turn, refers to ‘Historian historian Robert Darnton’s idea that there have been four great Information Ages in human history, times when the ways people communicated with one another changed so irrevocably there was no going back.  In each of these eras, people worried about distraction.’

So, Socrates worried that the alphabet and writing distracted people from ideas. Then when Gutenberg’s invention of movable type sullied the purity of the handwritten script, and powered printing presses in the industrial era risked overloading people with information they couldn’t handle. And finally – you get the idea – comes the internet, easy personal communication and, all in all, a new and seemingly overwhelming level of distraction. Read the blog, it’s entertaining.

So what will be the mobile phone policy in the rebooted version of ‘Cold Feet’? I wonder. We shall see.

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