The landline telephone rings only occasionally these days and, when it does, it often brings a call-centre hustle of some kind. Yet every day passes in a blur of staccato communication with the outside world: can you do this? Have you seen that? Nudge, link, like, follow. The rhythm of online correspondence provides an easy sort of company, and can sometimes – not always – make life more convenient, but there is a price to be paid. We are losing the art of conversation.
In a perceptive New York Times article, Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT has argued that there is growing confusion between communicating online and conversing in real life. "People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people – carefully kept at bay," she writes. "We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' on online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't." Talk, in other words, is not to be confused with its cousins in cyber space, chat, shout and mutter. It may be messy and old-fashioned, it will certainly carry the risk of anger, confusion, hurt and boredom, but it grows more important for the health of heart and mind as we become more hooked on connection.
The problem is that chat does not merely compete with conversation; it erodes it. We are becoming so used to connection – accelerated, superficial and brief – that encountering arguments or states of feeling which are complicated, as life tends to be, can be a shock to the system. Online life is one of polarities: you like or you don't, and then you move on. There is no room for nuance.
That approach infects real life. Feelings that are tricky to express lose out to online equivalents which can be denoted with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign.
Because conversation provides real emotion and thought, rather than a quick and easy imitation of those things, it needs to be protected from this process of degradation. Perhaps it should be a breach of etiquette if someone talks to you, mobile in hand, in the manner of someone whose mind, eye or finger is only partly with you, but mostly connected to his virtual friends. Any serious meeting should start with a request to turn off all mobile phones.
Real conversation is important for our sanity and our happiness. An excess of online chat will make us lonelier, less kind to one another, more supine and self-obsessed. In both the personal and the political worlds, any argument which requires mental effort and flexibility, a recognition that there is sometimes no obvious right or wrong, will lose out to simple, time-efficient stupidity. The best of human thought and feeling risks getting lost in the roaring silence of connection.