What is Real Conversation?

Can real conversation take place through digital mediation? Sherry Turkle argues that conversation needs to be reclaimed, that it has been diminished as a result of algorithmic thinking and an avoidance of ambiguity and even boredom that digital communication media trade upon. Conversation, much as Birkerts would say of reading, is in the age of digital information (and attention) always elsewhere.

McLuhan, writing at the beginnings of the electronic age of information, focuses our attention somewhat differently. He offers something of a counter to Turkle and Birkerts, though one could argue as well that his historical view also provides evidence for their concerns. He helps us see where we seem to be going, even from a vantage point of 5o years ago. For McLuhan, electronic media extend and amplify our desire, and our ability, to have conversation. But rather than seeing that as a distraction to be avoided, McLuhan celebrates the ways this mediation  returns us to a collaborative and participatory conversation with others. For McLuhan–and this is where he would counter Birkerts–that conversation prominent in oral culture was fundamentally changed by print literacy, the technology of the alphabet.

I am still working through my answer to this question: Can conversation (and its extensions of relevance to education: reading, learning, presentation, writing), can real conversation take place through digital mediation? I, too, am sorting through whose critical perspectives I will forward and counter, on the way to developing my answer.

I had a recent encounter with a highly mediated, digital conversation about a book and an author who was, among other things, intensely suspicious of our tendency to let communication technology (more than 150 years ago) take the place of meaningful communication. I participated as a guest scholar in a live streaming webcast on the media site HuffPost Live discussing the question “Does Henry David Thoreau Really Matter?” I discussed my perspectives on Thoreau and his famous book Walden, a book I have taught often in my environmental writing classes. In the discussion, I countered a recent article that asserted that Thoreau’s book was not worth reading.

The experience was mediated and the conversation was virtual. But this mediated conversation extended a desire I had to respond to this article, to articulate my thoughts and concerns on its limitations, and be informed by others, by what I didn’t understand. That is the purpose of a conversation. This one worked well because of the occasion, the motivation. We did, in fact, have something to say–and the distances between the people having the conversation mattered not, what mattered was the rhetorical purpose. And it also worked, I believe, because the mediated experience was further guided by the care for time, rather than speed. The conversation was given time to unfold, to take place, even if that place was in several places at the same time.

Some things for me to keep thinking about as we continue to work through what it means to read and write in the digital world.

 

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