Kudos to Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, two social media bigwigs who just blew the whistle on how their industry is destroying society. They ought to be short-listed for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
So, as it turns out, it really is both unhealthy and bizarre that a large percentage of our population now drifts through the day in a computerized trance, like electronic sheep tethered to their devices—counting dopamine-inducing “likes” for a cheap high (a new kind of drug-addict)—while ignoring the awe, wonder, and beauty of actual life; which includes conversations with, um, actual people….remember them?
Having taught English at both the high school and college levels since 1997, I’ve had a front row seat for the great “erosion of conversation” in America. If I had a dollar for every student I reminded to turn off their Smartphone in class, to better engage in the joy of real conversation, I’d be a rich man today, worth more than my measly teacher salary ever paid me.
Not only do poor conversational skills lead to an increase in personal boredom, social isolation, and a sense of alienation or atomization that destroys community (David Brooks has been excellent on this lately), it also paves the way for tyranny. Makes sense, right? If citizens can’t discuss political problems in a calm and rational manner, and without demonizing the other as “Trumpian” or “Liberal,” how can we explore solutions to these problems?
Also crucial is the fascinating link between conversation and thinking. Socrates was onto this with his “dialogic method,” but the modern field of cognitive psychology went even further. Created by scholars like Frank Smith (a fierce critic of our testing-obsessed education system) and Jerome Bruner, who discovered that human beings think best in terms of stories, the work of cognitive psychologists needs to be paid more attention to.
First, though, we need to shift education away from its current, shallow marketing orientation—of producing better technocrats for the global economy—to one that nurtures more humane, thoughtful, peace-loving citizens. As a first step in this direction, the link between education and democracy (which nobody talks about these days but which seemed obvious to Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey) ought to be known more broadly by the general public.
To help this process along, my wife and I created a nonprofit TV show, “Public Voice Salon,” that cares less about pundits and celebrities than artists and thinkers whose ideas could change the world. This year we featured the anti-nuclear activist Alice Slater, who seeks to abolish all nuclear weapons, and Nel Noddings, a philosopher known for her pioneering “theory of care” in education.
It might also be time to gather together, in cafes and bookstores and civic spaces, and even in our homes—shutting off our smart (dumb?) phones—to practice the sacred, ancient, democracy-saving art of conversation. Reactions to this letter are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.