Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I was reading this review by Russell Baker of Stephen Miller's new book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art in the New York Review of Books, and, while most of the review was good and the book looks interesting, I was bothered by one passage in it. In the process of analyzing the reasons why the art of conversation seems to be declining, Baker considers the way technologies such as television, radio, and internet can keep us from talking to each other because of their endless distractions. He says:

Television and radio, alas, are no longer the only irresistible forces destroying conversation. They are now supported, perhaps even outdone, by iPods, cell phones, computers, BlackBerries, electronic games, Netflix, and the Internet. For years books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and recordings have helped people achieve what Miller calls "conversational avoidance," but in this new age of electronic miracles amok, conversation is being hard pressed to survive. The man who wants to say a few words of his own nowadays may have trouble finding anyone to listen, but never mind, he can always retreat to the solitude of his Web site and speak to the whole cyberworld through the electronic megaphone he calls his "blog."

Now, I know the kind of "conversation" Baker (and Miller, but I say Baker because he's the one I've read) is talking about is in-person, face-to-face conversation, and that that's the dictionary definition of the word. I know he's not considering the larger, perhaps metaphorical, sense of conversation as something one can have at a distance, through letters or email or comments on blogs. Perhaps I shouldn't criticize Baker for not taking up all kinds of conversations, for having a narrower definition than the one I'm using. I know that face-to-face conversation is different than written exchanges: there's a spark and spontaneity and vulnerability in these conversations which don't exist in other kinds in quite the same way.

But I still thought this portrayal of blogs was off, and that blogs can foster a kind of conversation that is important, albeit different from face-to-face ones. Blogs don't have to be megaphones. And because of the possibility for commenting and emailing through blogs, they strike me as in a different category than TV, magazines, movies, etc., which don't allow interaction.

The problem with understanding conversation solely as spoken and face-to-face, I think, is that it privileges those who are good at speaking and thinking on their feet. Some people are good at this kind of conversation and others are not. Baker talks about whether the gift of conversation is just that -- a gift -- or whether it can be learned, but that aside, some shine at it, while others don't. And for those who don't, writing one's thoughts and responding to others through writing can be an alternate way to excell at conversation. I bet a decent number of people who write blogs and comment on blogs are more comfortable writing than speaking. I think it's true for me.

When I teach, I like to use electronic discussion boards as well as holding oral discussions for this very reason: some students love to talk and debate and others prefer to write out their thoughts. Whether spoken or written on a discussion board, it's a conversation, and I think students can benefit from trying out both ways.

I do get the point that there's something special about spoken, face-to-face conversation, but I don't see the point of elevating that kind over others and failing to recognize the benefits of conversation through writing.