Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Conversation without hyperlinks

The announcement of Oscar nominations this morning reminded me of a gathering of friends nearly 15 years ago. We were having dinner and started talking about Oscar winning movies. Maybe we had just seen a movie; I don't remember. The restaurant was one with white paper on the tables, so we used a crayon to write down the best picture winners from previous years based totally on memory. No one knew the list by heart. Some entries were agreed on only to later realize they must have been a few years before or after. Evidence came in the form of anecdotes: where someone lived at the time, with whom someone had seen the film, what year someone was in school when it came out. The conversation had many tangents. We talked about movies that should have won. We talked about what we liked and disliked about each movie. Occasionally we'd comment on who had won the directing and acting awards that year as well. In the end, we had a pretty good list and a pleasant conversation that lasted over an hour.

When I went home I checked a reference book to see how we had done. We got a few things wrong, but it didn't matter. It had been an enjoyable evening.

That wouldn't happen now. Once someone wondered aloud about Oscar winners at least one person would pull out a smart phone and look up the answer. Eye contact would be lost, and the conversation would degrade despite protestations of "No. Keep talking. I'm listening...Man, I have no bars in here. What about you?" 

We all know (or should know) that it is rude to text and tweet and check email while talking to someone, but we sometimes forget that using technology as a reference also weakens our in-person connections. Does the person you're with really have to see that hilarious YouTube video now? Can we accept that we can't remember who sings that song and move on? Can't we look each other in the eyes and just talk for a while?

Good conversation is actually very much like Web content. Each topic links to another and another and another until you've gone from work to politics to TV shows to high school and more all in a single evening. Exploration of tangents is how we discover things about other people and ourselves. This occurs best when questions are allowed to linger with uncertain answers, when you have to get from point A to point B without a map.

Additionally, not looking something up allows your brain to do its job rather than outsourcing to Google. The retrieval may not be as fast as the Internet, but the data is in there. The other night my husband and I saw a band on TV. We couldn't remember the name of the lead singer. The iPhone was out of reach. It wasn't important. We let it go. Later, when I was brushing my teeth, the name came to me. The mind is pretty amazing like that if you give it a chance.

Now, I'm not saying that it's not nice to be able to look things up from anywhere. Certainly, you may not get to have a good conversation if you don't remember the address of the restaurant where you are meeting people. Go ahead. Look it up. Pull up a map, but once you get there try to fight the urge to get the instant answers. Accept unknowns at least for a little while. See what happens.

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