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The decline and fall of conversation:The smartphone’s effect on our ability to meet, greet, and speak

People are quickly losing the ability to talk to one another. A residual  capacity still exists, but it is evaporating so fast that I may witness its extinction in my lifetime. The roots of this problem can be traced back as far as the invention of the telegraph more than 180 years ago but the advent of the smartphone has now vastly accelerated the decline of face to face speaking skills. Oratory, rhetoric, public speaking, and clarity of speech have likewise suffered greatly.

When I was growing up in the time before cellphones, I recall the numerous opportunities I had to meet and converse with strangers. Luckily, my parents never discouraged me from interacting with strangers unlike today’s parents who are told by well-meaning but misguided ‘authorities’ that they should inform their kids to ‘never talk to strangers.’

Indeed, the chances to meet new people, chat, make small talk, and possibly make a new friend or acquaintance  were endless. However, all of those situations where formerly we were encouraged or at least allowed to chat up a stranger are now gone, thanks to the smartphone.

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If you found yourself in an elevator with someone and you were both riding up to a high floor, you may not have had a lot of time, but perhaps it was just enough to offer a “It’s going to be a hot day, that’s for sure,” to the person standing next to you. And that may have led to a reply of “Oh, you got that right. And my air conditioner broke last night and I was miserable because my room was so hot.”  And then you could commiserate with this person. The next time you ran into him you might continue the conversation by asking about the air conditioner. See? It was so simple. Now, I notice that everyone, once they have boarded the elevator, immediately takes out their phone to text to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of standing next to a stranger for a few seconds.

The introduction of televisions into airplanes guaranteed that people would no longer speak to one another on long plane rides though they were a few hold-outs who stubbornly insisted on having conversations with the person sitting next to them. Nowadays, with everyone carrying a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, even those hold-outs have disappeared. Most people don’t even wait for take-off to get plugged into their cyber-world. They cast nary a glance at the person who they will be sitting mere inches from for the next 10 hours. You, the person sitting next to this new species of cyborg, are irrelevant; actually, you don’t even exist.

Buses, too, have now installed televisions and wi-fi, and predictably people now no longer talk there either. I recall riding the Greyhound Bus on long trips up and down the West Coast and making some wonderful friends in the pre-television and pre wi-fi days.

Coffeeshops, bars, and restaurants used to be places where one could meet a stranger and start up a conversation, especially if one of you was reading a book. A glance at the front cover of a book was always an easy introduction into a chat. “That book looks interesting. I’ve heard of that author but have never read anything by her. Is it good?” Your interest in the book, and literature in general, was usually sufficient to show that you were not a creep and could hold a reasonably decent intellectual conversation. These days, nobody brings books into cafes or restaurants. It’s all about the smartphone now and no one is going  to ask you what you are looking at on your phone. Furthermore, when people read books, although they were concentrating, they were still present in the here-and-now world. Not so with the smartphone. The iphone and its ilk draw people deep into a cyberworld, an alternate reality. People lose all awareness of the real world. They don’t know who is sitting in front of, next to, or behind them, and don’t care.

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Because of the addictive nature of the smartphone, people, especially the young, have an extremely difficult time putting it down for even a few minutes. Hence, even if you are able to punch through their psychic wall and begin a conversation, it will inevitably peter out in a short time. The phone being held tightly in the palm of the hand begs to be used. It is insistent. If the conversation lulls for any reason, the one holding the smartphone will start texting or browsing the web and the talk is done. Finished.

Look at people today waiting at a bus stop for the bus to arrive. Look at the poor, lonely souls waiting in the queue at the supermarket or at the bank. Are they talking? No. They are checking their facebook or instagram. Look at the friends and families sitting in cars at traffic lights. Talking to each other? No- all looking at their phones. I used to work at an office where everyone would take their lunch tray back to their desk to  eat while watching youtube. Nobody was interested in sitting at a table and eating with friends and engaging in that age-old ritual called ‘conversation.’

 

 

The smartphone is not a tool, it’s a drug

When it comes to smart phones, the question must be asked: who is the master and who is the slave?  Do you control your smart phone, or is it the other way around?

Although most owners of smart phones will laugh good-naturedly when queried about this and admit, “Yeah, I’m addicted to my iphone,” they are unwilling to look at the extent and ramifications of their addiction full in the face.

Most of my teenage students no longer bother to talk to one another before class, during breaks or after class. They file into the classroom one by one, take a seat as distant from the other students as possible, and then take out their gadgets and sullenly scroll thru the screen, thumbs working hard. Often, I will a half-dozen or more students in the room, and you can hear a pin drop, it is so silent. Nothing happening but eyes glued to screens.

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Less than 20 years ago when the first crude cell phones began appearing, there was at least some, but not much, discussion about when it was appropriate to interrupt a conversation to take a call. That brief discussion has ended and it is now taken for granted that it is permissible to answer the phone or a text message at any time, anywhere, for any reason.  It is acceptable to interrupt a deep and intense conversation between a mother/daughter, father/son, boss/employee, boyfriend/girlfriend, best friends, grandfather/grandson, husband/wife, and other relationship one can think of simply to answer a call. Sure, you can still ask, politely, for the person you are conversing with to put away their phone for the duration of the conversation, but be prepared for strange  and sometimes downright hostile looks from them.

Most of the phone carriers where I live in Southeast Asia do not provide voice messaging. There is nowhere for someone to leave a message if you do not answer the phone. But really, who needs such a service nowadays?  The phone is with you all the time, and when it rings you answer it. Period. If someone calls and you don’t pick up, they assume you have mysteriously disappeared or perhaps died. They don’t even follow up the missed call with a text message. The notion that someone might  purposely decline to answer a call is inconceivable to people now, especially the under-35 generation.

 

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It’s humorous to observe people when the phone is in their pocket or handbag and a call comes in. They  immediately spring into action, almost like they are in a fight-or-flight response. They appear to think that if the phone buzzes more than once or twice, it is an insult to the person who is calling.  There is nothing casual at all about the way they reach for their smartphone. Their master – the phone-  is calling, and they reach for it with the utmost sense of urgency.

The common scene now at restaurants, bars , and cafes is for hipsters and pseudo hipsters to have a whole arsenal of digital gadgets spread out on the table before them.  I recently sat across from a young twenty-something girl at a cafe who was so desperate to appear cool that she took no chances. She had not one, but two smartphones in front of her, plus a tablet. She hid her face behind oversized sunglasses and earphones. She chain smoked marlboro cigarettes and drank aspartame-laced Diet Coke. She had a notebook with some scribbles open on the table, but never once touched it. The Lost Generation on full display.

 

 

The catholic church, McDonald’s and Facebook: time for a divorce?

Psychologists, social theorists, and philosophers have all attempted to answer the question of why people remain in abusive relationships. It is well documented that people, especially women, will stay in relationships that have been abusive for years, sometimes decades. Instead of simply walking away or filing for divorce, humans will create all kinds of rationalizations for the behavior of the abuser and for their refusal to leave.

“He only does it because I deserve it…..Deep down, he really loves me….He’s going to change some day, I know it…….It’s only because he had a difficult childhood, I need to be compassionate…..If he didn’t have me, he would have nobody, what would he do”?…… I can’t just abandon him”…….And so on.

This unwillingness to extricate ourselves from abusive relationships carries over into our relationships with governments, institutions, and corporations as well. It is human nature to cling to the familiar and habitual even when those habits are destructive and inimical to our self-interest. Many of us develop ‘brand loyalty’ over the course of our lives. We tend to trade in our old Honda for a new Honda. We throw out our old Adidas shoes for some new Adidas shoes. We root for the same sports team that we grew up with even though we moved away from that city 30 or 40 years ago.

But what do we do, or what should we do, when faced with evidence of corporate or institutional malfeasance and corruption? When is it time to punish corporations for reckless and immoral behavior by withdrawing our financial support for them? It appears that we humans have almost as difficult a time divorcing these companies as we do our abusive partner.

The catholic church, McDonald’s and Facebook

About ten years ago, when yet another huge scandal erupted within the catholic church, the daily headlines were filled with scandalous stories of hundreds, perhaps thousands of priests who had been accused of molesting young children, mostly young boys. As horrifying as these stories of molestation were, what was equally or perhaps even more horrifying was the additionally uncovered fact of  a church cover-up. The bishops at the very highest levels of the catholic  hierarchy in America and other countries knew very well that this child abuse was occurring, much of it inside the churches, and yet did nothing to stop it. In fact, they colluded to hide the crimes from the eyes of police. One could say, without exaggeration, that much of the catholic church was nothing more than a sophisticated pedophile ring.

 

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There is no greater crime in this world than stripping a child of his innocence prematurely and traumatizing him for life. And this was happening on a vast scale with the trail of guilt leading right back to Rome and the doors of the Vatican itself. During the height of the news coverage of the latest scandal, I recall reading a story with the provocative headline: “Why in the world is anybody still catholic?” The writer of the article detailed the scope and nature of the crimes committed within the church and the refusal of the Vatican to take responsibility for its priests and even on many occasions to enable them to continue in their predatory actions. The writer asked the simple and straightforward question: If that is not enough for you to divorce the catholic church, then what is? It was, and is, a fair question. If catholics really believe that the church is capable of reforming itself, then they are as delusional as the battered wife of 20 years who thinks her husband can change. Sadly , a large number of catholics worldwide cling to the notion that if they leave the church, they are leaving god. They still have not grasped Jesus’ main teaching that the kingdom of god lies within you. 

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/specials/clergy

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/a-secret-shame-inside-the-latest-scandal-to-rock-the-catholic-church-1739889.html

Last month a food scandal in China rattled the stock value of McDonald’s, along with Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut) and Starbucks. A local news organization had smuggled a hidden camera into a meat processing plant which sold its products to McDonald’s and others. They filmed some workers scraping meat off the floor to package and sell and others mixing  old, outdated meat with fresh meat. The story quickly went viral and the fast food companies scrambled to go into recovery mode as sales in China and Japan tanked. In the immediate weeks following the release of the story, many McDonald’s restaurants in both of those countries were empty. However, the impact of the crisis appears to be limited to those two regions and there is no reason to believe that sales will not bounce back in a few short months as the scandal blows over. Here in Southeast Asia, the McDonald’s restaurants are as busy as ever as consumers seem blithely unconcerned with what is happening in our giant neighbor to the north.

NOT FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION:

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What was lacking from most of the coverage of this latest story was any perspective. This is hardly the first time that McDonald’s and other fast food conglomerates have been accused of using substandard products, especially meat products. Investigative reporters and writers have been covering this for decades. John Robbins’ pioneering work in books such as ‘Diet for A New America’ and ‘The Food Revolution’ covered these topics in detail, as did ‘Mad Cowboy’ and Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation.’  Movies and documentaries such as ‘Food Inc.’ and the movie version of ‘Fast Food Nation have also reached a mass audience.

Executives at McDonald’s will make some superficial changes, perhaps change suppliers and engage in their usual spin. But the core of their business model demands large quantities of  cheap, low quality beef. That is not going to change. Ever. What was uncovered in China is happening right now  in many other locations around the world. Perhaps another intrepid reporter will take a hidden camera into more giant meat factories. When will we say ‘enough is enough’ and quit giving this seller of toxic ‘food’ our hard- earned money?

http://www.prweek.com/article/1304517/china-food-scandal-rocks-mcdonalds-kfc

Last month, a story broke on the news wires about Facebook implementing a large study on its users, without their knowledge or consent. FB wanted to see if it could alter its users emotions by manipulating their news feeds. The vast majority of the stories which resulted from this embarrassing leak were variations of “How dare they do that?” Indeed, I don’t recall reading a single editorial or blog where someone tried to defend FB. And yet, what real fallout actually occurred at FB?  Specifically, how many of its billion or so users ‘filed for divorce’ and deleted their accounts? If my students, colleagues, friends, and family are any indication, not many. In the two or three weeks following the initial story, I noticed all of my students logging on and going about business as usual. They are willing to ‘forgive and forget.’ FB’s well documented casual disregard for its users rights and privacy is nothing new. This latest outrage will only fuel the ever present rumors about the company’s close relationship with spy agencies such as the CIA and NSA. But the abused partner, er customer, will rationalize this behavior away, and be content, for now anyway, to keep this relationship going.

 

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