Sunday, January 10, 2021

Today We’re Overwhelmed By Simply Talking With One Another.

            The whole nature of conversation has been changing over these last years.  For one thing, conversation no longer necessarily involves spoken utterances.  As a matter of fact, for many people, including most young people, spoken utterances no longer seem to be the first resort for many casual conversations.  Chatting now involves written exchanges on social media like Facebook.  People type away like crazy on their smartphones to maintain a rhythm of conversation that would approach their rhythm if they were engaged in an oral conversation.  So the question is why do so many people gravitate to written chatting rather than oral chatting?

            The answer resides in the gradual reconfiguration of the fields of stimulation that people have been experiencing as a result of technological change.  Increasingly, modern technology has been displacing more traditional natural living environments, and, as a result, the amount of organic stimuli that people have been receiving has been diminishing significantly.  People today are surrounded by the mechanical stimuli of many machines and devices and by the digital stimuli that run screen-based machines like computers and televisions, the Internet of Things, 3 D printing, and virtual reality.  In other words, people are surrounded by defined discrete stimuli rather than the flowing blendable continual stimuli, the organic stimuli that are found in nature.  As this transformation in the fields of experience occur, so also does the human capacity to be receptive to different categories of stimuli.  As people surround themselves with modern machines and digital stimuli, they gradually lose their receptivity to organic stimuli.  In terms of communication, people began to feel overwhelmed by face-to-face primary experience conversation and to feel increasingly comfortable in mediated forms of communication.  Before texting came along, there was obviously the less mediated form of communication of the telephone.  The telephone captured one part of the organic imprint that was made in face-to-face conversation: namely, the human voice.  Missing were the facial expressions and the body gestures that are such an important part of face-to-face primary experience communication.  But at least on the phone, one could convey a lot through vocal inflection, volume, tone, and speed.

            However, one other thing is missing on the phone that is present in face-to-face: the knowledge of the sustained presence of the person with whom one is talking, even when the person is silent.  In face-to-face conversations, the companion is presented as more than simply a series of defined discrete chopped-up bits and pieces of conversation.  The companion is endowed with a 3 dimensional external world reality of mass, matter and substance.  When one is talking with a person face-to-face, there is grounding from the common physical space where both people are as well as the presence of a bonding among the people talking.  In phone conversations, where people experience each other as chopped up sensations, common physical grounding is non-existent and bonding is much more tenuous and fragile.  Between the periods of time when a person is talking, there is the vacuum of silence when for all intensive purposes, he ceases to sensorily exist. It is hard to bond or be grounded with someone who only exists as a series of chopped-up auditory images.

            When we move to texting, we move to a more mediated form of communication.  There is no direct organic imprint from the physical presence of the person with whom one is texting.  The communication is done through the thoughts put down in writing of the people involved.  Again, as with the vocal communication on the phone, there is a vacuum of silence between written utterances.  However, the vacuumization is carried further, because there is no sensory presence of the person with whom one is talking.  With a phone call there is the voice, but with texting one only witnesses the physical presence or imprint of the thoughts of one’s companions.  So the whole experience is sensorily vacuumized.  There is no real external world grounding, and real bonding is very tenuous at best.

            Young people today love texting, but everybody, because of Covid 19, has been moving to another manifestation of digital communication, namely what I call screen reality communication: Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, FaceTime.  On the one hand these screen reality forms of communication allow a person to be visually presented to his companion or companions just like in face-to-face external world communication.  But it is like a trick, because one is visually present without being physically present.  The visual images lack depth, they are flat.  They are vacuumized images.  One cannot touch or smell the other person.  It is as if one is lulled into a false sense of communion.  The image of the other person lacks mass, matter and substance.

            With texting, there are no illusions.  The whole experience is vacuumized.  But with screen reality communication, one can still feel as if one is having a meaningful communing experience.  And screen reality communication is even less vacuumized than straight talking on the phone.  We can say that screen reality communication blurs together with face-to-face communication and the danger is that not only does screen reality communication imitate face-to-face communication, but face-to-face communication starts to feel more mediated like screen reality communication.  A person can become so reconfigured by digital communication that his capacity to commune and bond with other people becomes severely affected.  Nevertheless, I recently wrote an article for this column in which I stated that, because of Covid 19, it was better to use Zoom and other such visual forms of communication to have some visual connection to people, rather than to be totally visually isolated and thus sink into an even deeper level of numbness in a deeper experiential vacuum.  I still believe this, in spite of the side effects, and I look forward to the day when we have a vaccine and, thus, face-to-face primary experience will become safe again.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow


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