Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Conversing for Fun and Progress

Gosh, what is the world coming to when even David Godine has a blog? Although I notice he has not yet contributed many bon mots himself. Perhaps he is the man behind the curtain? Perhaps he is waiting for Godot? Be that as it may, most of us seem eager to dive into any new means of communication. Blogs are just one more glowing ember in the sticky magma of human communication. It seems we can’t help it.

Remember life before cell phones? We walked off airplanes to where our friends patiently waited, each of us waving happily as soon as we spotted one another. Now we call immediately upon touchdown, “I’m here. The plane’s just landed. I’ll call again when I’m on the jetway.” And we do, often with a follow-up of “I’m just passing the Starbucks. I’m wearing my red sweatshirt. See you soon!”

With this GPS mode of communication we alert everyone to our current position. “I’m waiting in line at the movies.” “I’m just leaving the grocery store.” In essence, it’s a message with no real expectation of or need for feedback. Even if it’s not broadcast in the technical sense (as Twitter is), its intention is one-way.

Many so-called conversations are really just a series of proclamations that go out into the air in this kind of parallel fashion, never touching one another.

In database engineering language, this type of uniflow communication from one source file to multiple recipient files is called a “one-to-many relationship,” and is very useful for the sorts of things that databases do. But in the human environment, although highly seductive for the “one,” it bores the “many” and ultimately it’s not useful for solving big problems.

Far better is a “many-to-many relationship,” where talk eddies back and forth among many people. The caveat, of course, is the inherent confusion and frustration whenever differing points of view rub together. That’s why a patient and alert mind is required in many-to-many conversations.

One of the most brilliant and sustained examples of this sort of conversation occurred repeatedly in a real-time, face-to-face Concord MA neighborhood in the middle of the 19th century. Several families lived and worked together, sharing babysitting and canned fruit, carpentry and farming, ideas and love. Their potluck dinners brought together incredible intellectual firepower. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his wife Lidian, Bronson Alcott and his wife Abba, their friend Henry Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody knew the value of growing ideas communally, of agreeing and disagreeing, but rarely walking away.

Their talk was rooted in the issues of their day — abolition, democracy, education, poverty, justice — and they also tackled blue-sky questions like “what are the responsibilities of being human?” and “what is my relationship to nature?”

These neighbors knew that a many-to-many conversation which encouraged good will and keen vision in the face of disagreement is one of the best ways to bring in a useful harvest. A crop of good ideas will never sprout if we pretend the weedy ones don’t exist.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email]


  1. Love this post, am big Kit Bakke fan!

  2. The day I learned about Twitter I said, "Not for me. What's so interesting about letting the world know "I'm 7th in queue at the 5th Ave Theatre loo?"

    The next day my Dutch Editor in
    Chief let me know that I had to start a Twitter account because the headline of my articles (140 minus TinyURL amounts to only 120 characters) needed to appear on Twitter). I vouched I wouldn't twitter a bit outside this grid if I could help it.

    But, over time I have to my surprise become one of a community that actually sends tweets back and forth, finding shared joy over accomplishments, solace, support, recognition et cetera.

    True, there are truckloads of birds who automatically follow every fleeting tweet, and I've had my share of unwanted followers, but on a whole I have to admit I've come to appreciate the possibility of catching tunes I would never have encountered without this medium.

    Virtually shared potlucks can at times feel like social poverty, but there is amazing beauty in haikus of meals in the making, and of friendships forched 140 characters at the time.

  3. As usual, you are perhaps my most eloquent friend. Loved this post. And would love even more to have a many-to-many among the Sea Scribes. Let's do it this year!

  4. I twitter, I blog, I facebook.

    Most of it, to be honest, feels like one-to-many communication. Also many-to-one.

    But many-to-many, not so much. Or, at least, not in the sense of thoughtful intelligent consideration of the issues of the day. It's more "Me, too," "Ain't it awful," or "WTF."

    However, Facebook is a pretty good way to keep in loose, superficial touch with many people. Twitter is a pretty good way to put your "brand" (hate that word) in the faces of many people, repeatedly. Blogging is a pretty good way to, as a writer, display samples of your work, and to develop ideas, maybe even in conjunction with readers.

    Also, I have to admit I am highly in favor of the funny cat videos on youtube (most of them).