With smartphones, the conversation at risk?

Talk is often pointless, walk, meeting, is a common word. But what about that in the age of the ubiquitous smartphone? Day and night, we communicate: via WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, Slack, TikTok, via email or text, via voice messages… And yet, David Le Breton reminds us that communication is not a conversation. At the same time, alert, available and disconnected from our physical senses, we slowly develop unlearned boredom, slowness, silences and attention to others… This article is part of our “Our lifestyle lives job” series.

The smartphone has introduced the before and after of its use into social bonds around the world. In about fifteen years, its trivial use has brought about an unprecedented transformation in relation to the world and others. I will refer here only to the profound changes experienced by conversation in the face of the colossal impact of communication, particularly when mediated by the mobile phone.

Communication is not conversation

By communication I mean the interference of the screen in the relationship with others, distance, physical absence, distracted attention, floating attention… Usefulness, effective, requires immediate response or subsequent justifications because it requires absolute availability that also causes the feeling that everything is going very quickly, that we have more time for ourselves. At any moment, a notification, a call, a message summons the individual to a response without delay, which maintains relentless vigilance.

On the contrary, the conversation is often pointless, the walk, the meeting, is common ground. It's just a matter of being together consciously and talking while taking your time. If communication eliminates the body, conversation requires mutual presence, attention to the other person's face, facial expressions and tone of gaze. He willingly composes with the silence, the pause, the rhythm of each person. Unlike communication where any suspension requires a painful reminder, especially to those who are around and not concerned, of: “We've been cut off,” “Are you there? ” “I can't hear anything anymore” “I'll call you back.” Conversation does not have this concern because the face of the other has never disappeared and it is possible to remain silent together in complete friendship, in complete complicity, to express a doubt, a meditation, a reflection. Silence in conversation is a breath, in communication it is a collapse.

A few months ago in Taipei, I was at a popular restaurant. At a table, not far from mine, about ten people from the same family, from the youngest to the oldest, came to sit. Time to take their seats, and everyone took out their smartphones, the youngest were two or three years old, up to the oldest, around sixty. Having barely glanced at the menu before ordering, everyone was absorbed in the contemplation of their cell phones, paying no attention to each other. They hardly said a word and ate the smartphones in their hands. The only exception was sometimes minor tensions between two of the children who must have been four or five years old. They stayed for a good hour, exchanging little more than a few sentences without really looking at each other.

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The scene could have taken place in Strasbourg, Rome or New York, any city in the world. It is common today. You only have to randomly walk into a cafe or restaurant to see the same situation. The old family or friendly gatherings are gradually disappearing, replaced by these new courtesies where we are together but separated from each other by screens, sometimes with a few words exchanged before returning to the tranquility of our mobile, folded inside us. What's the point of burdening yourself with others when a world of entertainment is instantly accessible where you no longer have to support trying to nurture your relationship with others. Conversation becomes stale, useless, laborious, boring, while the screen is a beautiful escape that does not disappoint and occupies the time pleasantly.

Cities inhabited by zombies

The mass disappearance of conversation, even with himself, results in the fact that now the cities are deserted, we no longer meet anyone there, the sidewalks are full of zombies walking around hypnotized by their smartphones. With their eyes downcast, they see nothing of what is going on around them. If you are looking for your way, there is no point in asking for help, there is no one around you. Some are helmeted or wearing headphones, talking to themselves and exhibiting an ostentatiously indifferent attitude, all with eyes only for their screen.

“Are you lost in the world like me? », Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, These systems fail (animation, Steve Cutts).

Sometimes, communication is imposed in the public space, imposed on those who do not dare to protest or go elsewhere, invaded by the persistent words of someone who has come to sit on his bench or near his table to start a conversation out loud. Another increasingly common occurrence is watching a weird video without headphones or putting the speaker on to better hear the voice of the person you're talking to.

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Another form of common disrespect that has become commonplace is talking to someone who can't help but pull their smartphone out of their pocket every thirty seconds for fear of missing a notification or dropping you after a vibration or ringtone. Exchange of good process, each occupying one place or the other according to the circumstances. The fear of losing information causes this excitement among teenagers, but not only that, but also this frantic search for the smartphone in their pocket, unless it remains in their hand at all times. What Americans call Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become an anxiety affecting most of our contemporaries. Even when placed near you on a table, the experience shows that the smartphone exerts a magnetism that is difficult to resist, eyes regularly rest on it in a kind of nostalgia.

For these users, long-distance, disembodied relationships are less unpredictable, less frustrating, only touch the surface of the self, and in this sense often seem preferable to real-life interactions. They create relationships consistent with desire and based solely on personal decisions without fear of exaggeration, because from then on it is enough to interrupt the conversation under the pretext of a network problem and stop communication. Face-to-face interactions are more random, more likely to hurt or disappoint. But the more we communicate, the less we meet, the more conversation disappears from everyday life. Screens provide a means to cross the mirror of social bonds to find oneself elsewhere without other presence constraints to assume in front of others. They cause spectral communication, essentially with ourselves or with a minimal otherness. Often in the wake of habits adopted during confinement, when any other connection was impossible. Today we are increasing the number of meetings and remote conferences which in my personal experience did not exist before the emergence of Covid.

A growing sense of isolation

Digital society is not in the same dimension as concrete sociality, with people in mutual presence talking and listening to each other, attentive to each other, taking their time. It fragments the social bond, destroys old solidarities in favor of those, abstract, most often anonymous, social networks or physically absent correspondents.

Paradoxically, some see it as a source of connection when the isolation of individuals has never been on such a scale. Never has the misery of teenagers and the elderly reached such a level. Frequent use of multiple social networks or display of privacy on one social network does not create intimacy or connection in that particular life.

Digital society takes up time and provides the means to bypass anything boring in everyday life, but it doesn't provide a reason to live. Of course some find a connection there because of their isolation, but isn't the latter also an impact of the fact that we no longer meet in real life?

Everyone is constantly behind their screen, even when walking in the city, the individual experience of conversation or friendship becomes rarer, isolation multiplies, giving the paradoxical feeling of superabundance. But all that remains of the connection is a simulation. A hundred “friends” on social networks are not worth one or two friends in everyday life.

The smartphone provides the means to no longer consider others. It contributes to social fragmentation and paradoxically, not without irony, offers itself as the antidote to isolation, the necessary addition since we hardly talk to each other anymore in trains, public transport, coffee shops, restaurants and many other places that used to favor meetings , but today they juxtapose isolated, separated people, who are thinking in front of their screen.

New forms of expression appear that are now evident to many contemporaries, and not only digital natives. Overall, connection trumps a conversation that is relegated to anachronism, but not without significant impact on the quality of social bonds and potentially the functioning of our democracies.

David Le Breton is the author of 'Faces. An anthropology' (Métailié pocket) and 'Du silence. Anthropological Essay' (Metailié). To be published: “The End of Conversation: Discourse in a Spectral Society” (Métailié).

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