Let’s just talk!

“Conversation, like life, has silences and boring bits. This bears repeating: It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communications can lead to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living.”

The “app generation” is what the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davies called the generation that grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It’s a way to describe people who bring an engineering sensibility to everyday life and certainly to their educational experience.

The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results. By this logic, you go to certain schools, you get certain grades, you take certain summer enrichment courses and join certain extracurricular activities, and the app works: You get into an Ivy.

The results? Students have no time (or no motivation) to dream. No occasion to structure their own time. Or learn about situations that have no certain outcomes. In school, when the app generation has to deal with unpredictability, they become impatient, anxious, and disoriented. At work, the problems continue.

It all boils down to one thing: eye contact. Imagine a baby suckling on a mother’s breast. But the mother’s eyes are on her smartphone. The baby does not latch on to her mother’s eyes and the most important connection between mother and child fails to take place. The consequence of which will be revealed soon, with the child’s lack of empathy and communication skills.

What do we forget when we talk to machines, instead of to each other? The author asks. “We forget what is special about being human. We forget what it means to have authentic conversation. Machines are programmed to have conversations “as if” they understood what the conversation is about. So when we talk to them, we, too, are reduced and confined to the “as if.”

As more and more of our lives are being overtaken by machines and technology, it is prudent to think about what remains of the roles of humans.

Let me relate a story I had experienced recently. It was 3.30am and I was driving my daughter to the airport to catch a flight to India. As we were engrossed in conversation, I had overshoot the turning to the airport road. My daughter immediately pulled out her phone and turned on Waze, which told us to turn off at the next turning and take the small road to KLIA. As I approached the toll gate, I was hoping that there would be a human manning the toll, so that I could ask for directions. And low and behold, a human was seated inside one of the toll cubicles and I told her about my predicament. She told me I could take the old road but the road is dark and there are a lot of traffic lights. I said I would prefer to turn back into the highway and she pointed to the U-turn just ahead! Phew! Was I glad for a human connection! So yes, humans still have significant roles to play, and being physically present for others is important. And engaging in deep conversations with our child, our spouse and our family and friends, is the most natural and significant step to understanding others and ourselves better.

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