Look who’s talking

Today I attended a panel about the future of on-line toys and games. Near the end, during the Q&A, a concerned member of the audience asked the panelists whether they thought there was a danger, as kids spend progressively more time in tweeting, SMS, and on-line chat, that our children will become diminished in their ability to hold a conversation.

An answer instantly sprang to my mind, but apparently it wasn’t the answer shared by the panel. One of the panelists replied, soothingly, that it’s all a question of balance. Parents should monitor how their kids spend their time. As long as the mix includes real physical play, in addition to time on-line, then everything will be ok. The other panelists nodded approvingly.

My take on this was quite different. To me the problem is not that children will lose their ability to hold a conversation, but rather that grownups will lose their ability to understand that conversations are going on all around them.

I suspect something like this happened in the late nineteenth century. Young people everywhere started talking on that new-fangled telephone, while their elders fretted that the new generation would lost the ability to hold an actual conversation. The fact that actual conversations were occurring over electric wires may never even have occurred to concerned parents not quite comfortable with Elisha Gray’s great invention.

Conversation is something humans have evolved to do. Not only don’t you need to worry about kids and conversation, you can’t even stop children and teenagers from chattering away. It’s one of our most powerful instincts, one that, from the evidence, must have had been associated with serious survival value in the last several hundred thousand years of our species’ evolution.

But conversation, not surprisingly, moves to whatever medium is most convenient. Just because your friend is not in the same room, that’s no reason to stop talking. And just because you’re listening to some boring lecture in school, well that’s no reason to stop talking either. Not if you’ve got two thumbs and a Blackberry.

I don’t think kids are losing anything in the way of conversational skills, as they continue to move their conversations on-line and on-screen. But I do think their concerned parents may be in danger of being left out of the loop of where society is going. After all, you can’t join in a conversation if you don’t even know it’s happening.

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