When Talk Is Cheap | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

When Talk Is Cheap

A Socratic conversation about technology's impact on communication
A Socratic conversation about technology’s impact on communication

By Siddhartha Mitter

Stimulation or distraction? Knowledge or confusion? Connection or alienation?

The spread of digital technology clearly affects our psyche and productivity—but how? A wealth of books has sprung up to wrestle with this question, from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, which makes the case that connectivity is spurring tremendous new creative power to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which argues the Internet is short-circuiting our brains.

These and other recent works—Always On, Virtually You, Hamlet’s Blackberry—adorned the windowsill behind moderator Ronald Gross on a recent afternoon in TC’s Gottesmann Libraries, as he led participants in his Socratic Conversations series in a discussion of “Your Mind Online.”

Now in its sixth year, the twice-monthly series brings together assorted Teachers College and outside community members gather for an hour in the second-floor salon of the Gottesman Libraries to ponder topics such as justice, humor, forgiveness, patriotism, the media and whether it is true that Americans are getting “dumb and dumber.”

When it comes to methodology, however, Grossman makes no concessions to his subject matter. Even in a session on technology, the discussion was anchored by use of the customary flip chart, scrawled with thoughts on the afternoon’s topic collected over previous days from people walking through the library.

“I love having my friends with me all the time,” one person had written in the Pro column. But on the other side someone wrote, “It feels like a digital crack pipe in my pocket.”

The discussion brought up annoyances—the break in intimacy when someone you’re with stops mid-conversation to check a device; the blue light or sound of a person texting at a concert or movie – and tragedies: the New Jersey college student who committed suicide after being outed and harassed online.

But group also celebrated the sheer problem-solving strength technology and its power to spark and bind communities of interest. One participant, recently arrived from Japan, praised Google’s Street View function for helping him filter New York apartment listings. And doctoral student I-Ching Wang, a regular at the series, grew animated as she described how technology makes her feel autonomous and empowered, less reliant on anointed experts.

Jennifer Govan, of the Gottesmann Libraries, may have best framed the group’s ambivalence when she contrasted the speed and volume with which the new tools make resources available with the need for critical thinking, values and sensibility. “Do we control the technology or the other way around?” she asked.

The discussion produced no final answers, but for the participants, it was clearly a welcome opportunity to voice experiences and frustrations. It was also, Gross pointed out, the type of exchange that technology is rendering increasingly rare. Or as the magic-markered chicken scratching on the flip chart paraphrased someone’s complaint, text messaging, e-mail and other instantaneous media “reduce communication to words alone.”

“This is very Socratic,” Gross said. If Socrates never wrote down a word of his thoughts, leaving it to his followers, it was because he believed real dialogue took place only in the physical presence of the other person.

On that count, this conversation—during which no one was spotted fidgeting with an iPhone or tapping out a text—represented its own small, defiant victory.

Published Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011