A little research indicates the term “phubbing” has been around for about 5 years.  Although I have certainly fallen victim to the phenomenon of people constantly checking their devices while in social situations, I only this week realized there’s a term for it.  Learning of this word prompted me to dig out an essay I wrote in college about conversation.  While I am by no means a Luddite, I have certainly always been willing to consider both the positive and negative impacts of technological improvements.  (You will soon see this essay was written before email became ubiquitous and long before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominated the landscape.)

In case it’s not immediately obvious, I do see relevance for this essay in the archival realm.  Interactions with patrons have certainly changed as more and more finding aids and even collections are available online.  While we can champion our ability to provide access to users who may not have been able to visit our repositories in person, I challenge archivists to consider a broader interpretation of our outreach mission.  I contend that our collections should be an invitation to conversation — whether that happens among family members after genealogical research, among community members remembering a long past event, or among academics after the publication of an article.  With the diminishing frequency of the reference interview between archivist and researcher, perhaps this found time can be devoted to organizing forums in which people can come together to discuss the importance and impacts of the people and events represented in our collections.

The Rise and Fall of Conversation


As I sat at a college football game, these messages, strung along behind prop planes, circled above the stadium filled with 80,000 people. These unorthodox proposals caused me to think about our current attitudes towards conversation. I hoped that Ron and Wayne did not choose to fly their proposals around a football stadium because of a lack of practice in conversation and a fear of the responsibility of having to say more than the brief messages that would fit on the banners trailing the planes. Our society prioritizes convenience, privacy, speed, and efficiency — direct deposit paychecks, home shopping networks, portable computers — and we actually diminish the likelihood of human interaction by displacing situations conducive to conversation. Now these priorities even encourage and facilitate businesslike marriage proposals by providing the technology of the prop planes and condoning this quick, efficient means of proposing to a woman. Across the board, our architectural preferences and technological ambitions demonstrate a lack of focus on the vital importance of conversation.

Take hall bathrooms, for example. Duke is one of the few universities that maintains these plumbing relics. Many students from other colleges express amazement that we do not have the convenience of private bathrooms, suite bathrooms, or at least private sinks. These critics question our integrity as a modern university. But I like hall bathrooms. Because we students tend to be on hectic schedules, the only time we run into some people is in the bathroom, brushing our teeth. Once or twice a week, I wind up spending twenty or thirty minutes catching up with someone as we stand in the bathroom. If I didn’t have to come out of my room to wash my face, I’m afraid I would scarcely talk to some people in my dorm. But I fear that architects do not attempt to facilitate conversation through their designs of new buildings.

Another conductor of conversation threatened by modern priorities is the front porch. Wide front porches, typically with swings or rocking chairs on them, have been the signature of small towns. If my neighbors can see me out on my porch sipping iced tea after dinner, they are more likely to call on me. But the popularization of air-conditioning discouraged people from taking advantage of the evening breezes on their porches; now architecture values separation and maximization of space over facilitating communication. Allocating space for a front porch is less of a priority than installing a jacuzzi in the master bathroom. In one contrasting example, the Blount Springs community in Alabama, with the expressed intent of fostering interaction among its residents, requires that all houses have front porches. Admittedly, the open atmosphere created by a community with front porches might limit your privacy. But we have become too secretive, hiding behind tall hedges and expensive alarm systems. Some porch conversations may not go further than name and rank, but at least neighbors would talk to each other.

Hall bathrooms and front porches represent two extant examples of the old school of personalized, face-to-face conversation. With the rise of sophisticated technology — faxes, modems, cellular phones — communication was to become easier. As one example, television was originally lauded as a wonderful means of quickly communicating with millions of people. Most households now have access to sets and the information they disperse. But television screens merely dispense sounds and colors to passive receptors. Television consists primarily of high-pressure advertising, glorified situational shows, and sensationalized “real-life” shows. TV sets inhibit communication in many dining establishments. Very few restaurants lack a television hanging from the ceiling, and its fast-changing images designed to attract attention perform their duty, at the expense of mealtime conversation. Televisions have even invaded the domain of the household dinner, impinging on the space for conversation with its loud jingles and contrived laughter.

In another example of modern technology, computer advances amaze me, but they also irritate me. Take automated switchboards, for instance. For the few people who call businesses and know either the name or the extension of the person to whom they wish to speak, the new system probably does facilitate their call. But the rest of us have to spend several minutes weaving our way through a barrage of selections for the privilege of talking to the human being that we used to be able to speak to immediately. In the name of efficiency, the computer-generated voice has replaced the receptionist. How far we have come since the original days of party lines and an operator who directed all calls. What have we sacrificed in the name of progress and privacy?

While automated switchboards merely irritate me, the possibility of using computers as the primary source of instruction for children frightens me. I agree that all children should be computer literate, but some valuable lessons can only come from a teacher and from working and playing and talking with other students. Much of education can only be facilitated by conversation. The push to incorporate computers into education began rather innocuously with the hope that each student in the classroom could have access to a computer. But now, reports have surfaced about the possibility of having students learn at home by a combination of computer, television broadcasts, and videos. If this happens, what would happen in the households that could not afford to purchase these educational apparatuses for their children? And how will children become socialized? I certainly could have learned more book knowledge by staying at home, but I would not have learned as much about living as a human being in a community. If anything, we need to pay more attention to interaction rather than less. As Maggie Kuhn said, “One of the reasons our society has become such a mess is that we’re isolated from each other.” Rather than turning to the computer as the panacea for our educational ills, we need to incorporate more creative, group problem-solving activities into our schools, thereby creating space for constructive conversations. Students can learn from the knowledge and skills of other students, and they can also benefit from the enthusiasm of their teachers.

I fear that unless we contemplate the effects that our architectural and technological development has on conversation, we risk blurring our reality into one of images rather than substance. A current commercial which announces the inevitability of viewer telephones claims that the new phone will be able to do everything except tuck your children into bed. What will this do to already fragile parent-child relationships if the visual nature of this device excuses the fact that it is a call rather than a touch? Enthusiastic researchers herald the arrival of interactive televisions within a few years, allowing us to order groceries, conduct our banking business, and share information with other subscribers. Will we become so dependent on computerized systems that we forget how to work directly with other people? We cannot and should not inhibit research out of a fear of new methods of work and communication, but we must continue to incorporate face-to-face conversation as a necessary aspect of our lives.

I do not know what happened to Jo Ann and Ron or Penny and Wayne. I hope that Ron and Wayne just wanted to be creative and to share their marriage proposals with their community. I hope the couples went home after the game, sat on their porches, drank lemonade, and discussed their future plans together. Technology cannot become our intercessor. In conversation lies our hope for the future.