The dying art of conversation & our modern, misguided search for meaning
Where once we sat around fires, now we sit around screens. What are the implications of this monumental shift in regards to how we live and interact?
There was a time when fireside conversation was the way in which ideas and information disseminated throughout communities, cultures and time. We learned to control fire, 400,000 years ago, and fire-talk enabled language to extend beyond ordinary affairs of the day.
Anthropologist, Polly Wiessner, suggests that these fires allowed our ancestors to collectively expand their minds and solidify their social networks.
Stories told by firelight put listeners on the same emotional wavelength, and elicited understanding, trust, and sympathy.
— Polly Wiessner
Storytelling is engrained in our DNA as an incredibly effective way to share ideas, and not just with our immediate network, but with our entire species. With this, a singular story can stay with us forever, altering the way we view and interact with the world in profound ways. This impressive capacity for communicating complex and important ideas through story has played a key role in our success as a species.
Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
But, where once we sat around fires, now we sit around screens...
Stories play a role in our modern lives more than ever — as we’ve evolved out of survival-mode and into comfort-mode — through our rich and diverse cultures, games, art, films and never-ending stream of digital media. Most of us check our phones within minutes of waking up. Without lifting our head off the pillow, we're greeted by the news, Instagram, texts and tweets, which flood our minds and tweak our perception of reality.
We can all think of a time when a story radically altered the trajectory of our life. These stories come in the form of documentary films, news broadcasts, trending tweets, and even that recent Instagram post from your ex. Stories can fundamentally change how we view and interact with the world, they shift our very identity.
Blackfish ruined SeaWorld. The video that exposed the injustice of George Floyd's death sparked a movement. And, who can forget (excusing Gen Zs) the viral, charity campaign #ALSIceBucketChallenge which raised over 115 million dollars.
I live in a small surf town, where campfires on the beach are a common social activity. Last night, we lit a fire under a lunar eclipse and talked for hours, while sparks flew up and met the stars. With a friendly stranger on my left, we explored a question I've been thinking a lot about: How do we communicate online versus communicate in reality?
I grew up without a cellphone and limited internet. I remember what it was like before humanity entered a state of constant connection. The first few years of the connection and social media boom were exciting, but I've become increasingly concerned with how we're using the tools we've built, on an incomprehensible scale. We've created tools that interface with a fundamental aspect of our design and unique makeup as a species.
Again, storytelling is at the root of human cooperation.
Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
How is the internet, social and digital media re-habituating us and our behaviour with one another? And, are we losing touch with how to communicate and listen in the human way?
When we share stories and ideas online, we’re not interacting with others in the way we do in real life. I've noticed that, online, we are allowed (perhaps, encouraged) to be outraged. In outrage, we begin to see other people as the embodiment of our disgust — caricatures to ridicule and dismiss.
Whereas, in real life, we see others first and foremost as human. IRL, if somebody harbours a different belief than us, rarely is it appropriate to call them names or make assumptions about their childhood trauma. We might disagree with what they’re saying, but naturally, we’d be more inclined to listen, or at least, be respectful.
Online, we are allowed (perhaps, encouraged) to be divided and stay divided. We sometimes even take pride in our division because it gives us a kind of meaning and community. And, this is something I really want to emphasize...
In the good ol' days, before the rise of the internet and automation, life was damn hard. People had to work, often with their hands, to make it in the world. While it's wonderful that many of us in the western world no longer struggle to meet our most basic needs (food, water, shelter) — because of an incredible abundance of accessible resources (including, yes, the internet) — life has, consequently, become more devoid of meaning.
A fight for survival, for our family's survival, gives an incredible amount of meaning to our lives. But, we're not fighting for survival anymore. Still, we crave meaning. Without meaning, we have no reason to go on living (it's that important). So, many of us are left unknowingly "searching" for meaning, desperately. Cue quarter-life and mid-life crisis, cue power-hungry business-people, toxic startup culture and political agendas, cue the over-the-top hippy movement, cue mis-informed activists, cue people popping out kids just to feel something (yeeesh), cue just about anybody doing anything "dramatic" without really knowing the why of why they're doing it... Honestly, the list is endless.
Now here's the kicker. Combine this modern-day "dearth of meaning" with our tendency to automatically reach for our phones when we're anxious, lonely, unsure or bored... And, BOOM.
People are creating a lot of "meaning" via their phones these days. Here we go with the cues again... Cue "influencers", cue Tinder, cue cult-like Facebook groups, cue perfectly designed IG feeds, cue sassy memes that slander "those guys", cue slimy sales-people peddling ads for courses that'll "change your life", cue all the people clicking those ads, and cue all of the extremism, polarization and cancel culture we see proliferating the internet. The list. goes. on.
Online, we are allowed (perhaps, encouraged) to be divided and stay divided. "Niche" they say — the people, the algorithm, loves it. We take pride in our division, in our "tribes", because they give us a kind of meaning and community.
But, in real life, we interact with people who harbour different beliefs and opinions than us all of the time. These people might be our strangers, the friendly neighbourhood convenient store guy, our teachers, friends, colleagues, or even family members.
What’s the fundamental difference between a fire and a screen? At a fire, we can sit beside an "enemy" and come to an understanding. At a screen, we can dismiss our enemy, and what’s more, receive social reward for it. At fires, tribes come together, but online, tribes polarize.
Outrage, frustration and anger can give us a feeling of "meaning" in the moment, but they create divide and reduce progress. We're in a time when deep polarization and disagreement is leading to societal breakdown. I see how the online world is driving this, how we are unlearning basic communication skills. I see how it's enabling people with differing ideologies to shun one another, instead of having conversation. It really helps to have a real, human conversation.
To solve some of the world's most pressing issues, we have to be able to communicate effectively. And, on more individual (daily) levels, we have to be able to see the beauty and humour in our differences and disagreements.
A quick lesson on effective communication (with those who have differing opinions):
It all comes down to intention. If "your enemy's” intention is to cause actual harm, then that’s worth interjecting upon. If “your enemy” is simply ignorant (or, maybe knows something you don't), I think it’s time we re-learn the dying art of campfire conversation.
Where once we sat around campfires, we now sit around screens. We mustn’t forget to sit at the fire, not only with our friends, but with our enemies too.