Thanks to Appeal Editor Brian Sandford, I’m having lunch today with several fellow columnists. We’ll be doing something different by sitting down at a table and engaging in something called face-to-face conversation. What a concept!
Face-to-face conversation is becoming a lost art in the age of the Internet and so-called “social media,” where you never have to interact with a real human being. You can call me an old fuddy-duddy (which I am), but I miss the days when we used to talk directly to our families, friends and neighbors.
I must confess, however, that modern technology has made it possible for me to discuss the subject of communication with two of my fellow U.S. Information Agency (USIA) retirees, who are keen and articulate observers of life in the Internet Age. One of my old USIA colleagues, John Brown, who runs a popular “public diplomacy” blog, recently wrote an essay titled “Is Anyone Speaking?”
“It is apparent that Americans’ growing inability to talk with one another is cause for concern,” he observed, and I agree.
Brown recalled the words of legendary broadcaster/journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was President Kennedy’s first USIA director. “The real art (of communication) is to move it the last three feet in face-to-face conversation,” he said. That’s true, and it’s what we tried to do when we worked for USIA in pre-Internet times.
Today, however, the emphasis is on technology. When I went to Canberra, Australia, in 1992 as the U.S. Embassy public affairs officer (PAO), our Washington headquarters was proposing to replace an American officer in Perth — who covers the western half of Australia — with some kind of an electronic kiosk. “No way!” I responded, and managed to defeat the proposal with an assist from my ambassador. But these kiosks, now called “American Corners,” are replacing Foreign Service officers at U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world. Would you rather talk to a real person, or to a machine? Many young people will choose the machine, but not me.
The erudite Brown has proposed a common-sense product to promote face-to-face communication. His “latest killer app” doesn’t require any fancy hardware or software and “its grid — called vocal cords — are 99.9999 percent glitch-free and more reliable than today’s bug-infested software.” And furthermore, “unlike electronic products, it poses no danger to the environment. ... (and) anyone in the world can use this free product,” regardless of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
Another fellow USIA retiree, Don Terpstra, who worked with me in Peru, nailed the essence of this issue in a few well-chosen words. “Everyone is on stage, and no one is in the audience,” he wrote. “We’re all so busy promoting ourselves that we rarely listen to others.”
I don’t blog, text or tweet, and I don’t have a Facebook page with hundreds of “friends.” And to be perfectly honest, I don’t care what your cat had for breakfast. I’m also concerned about cyber-stalkers who target young people and seniors.
I see images of the Internet Age at restaurants, where young people text each other as they share a meal. Both look down into their laps instead of at each other, a requisite of face-to-face conversation. So I won’t be texting anyone at our Appeal lunch today; rather, I’ll be conversing with my fellow columnists, a nice way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon in Carson City.
Guy W. Farmer is a certified techno-phobe.