Conversation points


Though rigorously formal, machine communication is characterized by a lack of courtesy. When computers converse, they dispense with pleasantries, with digressions about family and weather, with all manner of roundaboutness. They stick, with a singlemindedness that, in a traditional human context, would almost seem a form of violence, to the protocol. Realtime messaging allows no time for fussy niceties. Anything that reduces efficiency threatens the network. One must get on with it. One must stay on point.

I say traditional human context because there is a real question as to the continued viability of that context as more human conversation moves onto the universal realtime bus. As we tune ourselves to the rhythms of the machine, can we afford the inefficiencies of courtesy? Nick Bilton, in a recent New York Times piece, argues that “social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.” We owe it to each other, he suggests, to optimize the efficiency of our interpersonal communications, to switch from the conversational mode of old to the machine mode of now. What defined politeness in the past—the use of “hello” and “goodbye,” of “dear” and “yours,” even of first and last names—now defines impoliteness, as such customary niceties “waste” the time of the recipient of the message. More than that, though, the demand for optimal efficiency needs to set the tone, writes Bilton, for all conversation. We shouldn’t ask a person about tomorrow’s weather forecast, since that information is readily available online. We shouldn’t ask a stranger for directions, since directions are readily available through Google Maps. We shouldn’t use a voice call when an email will do, and we shouldn’t use an email when a text will do. Bilton quotes Baratunde Thurston: “I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost.”

Fuddy-duddys reacted with horror to Bilton’s column. One reader, calling Bilton a “sociopath,” wrote, “While I applaud The Times’s apparent effort to reach out to children, you go too far when you give them a platform on your pages to express their opinions, which have all the hallmarks of immaturity and gracelessness of their age group.” But Bilton has a point. I think most of us have experienced the annoyance that attends an email or text that contains the single word “Thanks!” It does feel like an unnecessary interruption, a little extra time-suck in a world of time-suckiness.

But there’s a blind spot in Bilton’s view. The big question isn’t, “Are conversational pleasantries becoming unnecessary and even annoying?” The answer to that is, “Yeah.” The big question is, “What does it say about us that we’re coming to see conversational pleasantries as unnecessary and even annoying?” What does it mean to be intolerant of “unnecessary communication,” even when it involves those closest to you? In a response to Bilton, Evan Selinger pointed out that it’s a mistake to judge “etiquette norms” by standards of efficiency: “They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.” Demanding efficient communication on the part of others reflects, Selinger went on, a “selfish desire to dictate the terms of a relationship.” There is a kind of sociopathology at work when we begin to judge conversations by the degree to which they intrude on our personal efficiency. We turn socializing into an extension of economics.

It’s hard to blame the net. The trend toward demanding efficiency in our social lives has been building for a long time. Indeed, the best response to Bilton came from Theodor Adorno in his 1951 book Minima Moralia:

The practical orders of life, while purporting to benefit man, serve in a profit economy to stunt human qualities, and the further they spread the more they sever everything tender. For tenderness between people is nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose … If time is money, it seems moral to save time, above all one’s own, and such parsimony is excused by consideration for others. One is straightforward. Every sheath interposed between men in their transactions is a disturbance to the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only incorporated but with which they proudly identify themselves.

What are Bilton and Thurston doing but identifying themselves with the apparatus of communication?

To dispense with courtesy, to treat each other with “familiar indifference,” to send messages “without address or signature”: these are all, Adorno wrote, “random symptoms of a sickness of contact.” Lacking all patience for circuitous conversation, for talk that flows without practical purpose, we assume the view that “the straight line [is] the shortest distance between two people, as if they were points.”

Adorno saw a budding “brutality” behind the growing emphasis on efficiency in personal communications. That may be going too far. But we do seem to risk a numbing of our facility for tenderness and generosity when we come to see aimless chatter and unnecessary pleasantries as no more than burdens and costs, drains on our precious time. “In text messages,” writes Bilton, “you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello.” For the efficiency-minded, that would certainly seem to constitute progress in the media of correspondence. But, in this case, allowing the mechanism of communication to determine the terms of communication could also be seen as a manifestation of what Adorno termed “an ideology for treating people as things.”

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.

Photo by Jo@net.

6 thoughts on “Conversation points

  1. Scott Holloway

    Amen, Mr. Carr! Amen!
    Unfortunately, some are taking on the traits of the tools they use. As an electrical engineer at a large IT company, it is easy to see how computers interact, and how humans interact. It is sickening and sad to think that we become better humans by assuming the traits of our tools.

  2. yt75

    “These Englishmen are no race of philosophers. Bacon signifies an attack on the spirit of philosophy in general; Hobbes, Hume, and Locke have been a debasement and a devaluing of the idea of a “philosopher” for more than a century. Kant raised himself and rose up in reaction against Hume. It was Locke of whom Schelling was entitled to say, “Je méprise Locke” [I despise Locke]. In the struggle with the English mechanistic dumbing down of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer (along with Goethe) were unanimous—both of these hostile fraternal geniuses in philosophy, who moved away from each other towards opposite poles of the German spirit and in the process wronged each other, as only brothers can.* What’s lacking in England, and what has always been missing, that’s something that semi-actor and rhetorician Carlyle understood well enough, the tasteless muddle-headed Carlyle, who tried to conceal under his passionate grimaces what he understood about himself, that is, what was lacking in Carlyle—a real power of spirituality, a real profundity of spiritual insight, in short, philosophy.* It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race that it clings strongly to Christianity. They need its discipline to develop their “moralizing” and humanizing. The Englishman is more gloomy, more sensual, stronger willed, and more brutal than the German—he is also for that very reason, as the more vulgar of the two, more pious than the German. He is even more in need of Christianity. For more refined nostrils this same English Christianity has still a lingering and truly English smell of spleen and alcoholic dissipation, against which it is used for good reasons as a medicinal remedy—that is, the more delicate poison against the coarser one. Among crude people, a subtler poisoning is, in fact, already progress, a step towards spiritualization. The crudity and peasant seriousness of the English are still most tolerably disguised or, stated more precisely, interpreted and given new meaning, by the language of Christian gestures and by prayers and singing psalms. And for those drunken and dissolute cattle who in earlier times learned to make moral grunts under the influence of Methodism and more recently once again as the “Salvation Army,” a twitch of repentance may really be, relatively speaking, the highest achievement of “humanity” to which they can be raised: that much we can, in all fairness, concede.”

  3. Terry W

    Hello readers,
    All sentimentality is old fashioned, it’s safe to say. I feel mildly ambivalent about digital pleasantry though, because while it’s certainly inefficient to cling to politeness in Society 2.0, it does remind us to at least pretend to care about those we interact with. And pretending can be important.
    Our modern culture is stripping away pretentiousness and revealing its hard, unfeeling core. I don’t mind the honesty. We don’t like each other, and we don’t care about how the other person feels, just as we realize they don’t care about us. Wherever there is much pleasantry and etiquette, there is falseness and deceit. From what I can tell, every highwater mark for civility in history has been accompanied by ghastly formalities, tradition, and secrecy. I think Tolstoy would agree.
    I’d say we need balance, of course. If you do care about a person, be considerate of their time AND their wellbeing. Reciprocate, acknowledge, and sympathize — don’t rely on meaningless formalities and etiquette.

  4. Roxie

    I worked for a small firm of accountants where time was cost counted for the entire day. Nobody spoke to anybody. It was horrible. I left after 3 months.

  5. Julianne

    I moved away from the Silicon Valley about 10 years ago and was recently back for a dinner of “tech leaders” in Palo Alto. They didn’t have much tolerance for social niceties, but they seemed to have plenty of time for what, to me, are complete “time waster” conversation topics such as:
    – how to attract venture money
    – which exit strategies will garner an entrepreneur the most money for the least effort
    – how to steal / hoard development talent
    – endless dissection of myriad vapid cross-platform services with cutesy names. I asked the requisite polite questions, smiled and nodded, and felt I did a reasonable job of yawning discreetly.

    It put me in mind of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ (of the Atlantic) working definition of an asshole: “a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms. ”

    I think what we are seeing is the culture of young male nerds writ large. These guys aren’t sociopaths, but, yeah, definitely assholes. They have their fair share of youthful narcissism and, let’s face it, many fall squarely in the Asperger’s camp. This is the natural consequence of all of us–collectively–putting them in a position to maybe set the tone for the larger culture pretty soon here.

  6. Norm

    The irony of this is that were Mr. Bilton to be consistent, he would have refused to sign his own name to his opinion piece. It seems that the desire for efficiency (unlike nobler aims such as honor, glory or politics) is inherently nameless, and Mr. Bilton would receive no credit for his “insight”, such as it is, were the world he imagines to ever actually exist. After all, it is useless to name machines.

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