Human conversation is dying, research shows

Back to sanity: “We need to focus on the ways technology can lead us back to our real lives” (Sherry Turkle)

It’s not just that we spend more time on FaceTime, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Skype. Evidence suggests that many of us choose digital communication over face-to-face. Is this a tipping point?

What with FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and Snapchat, for many people, face-to-face conversation is used less and less often.

These apps allow us to converse with each other quickly and easily — overcoming distances, time zones and countries. We can even talk to virtual assistants such as Alexa, Cortana or Siri — commanding them to play our favourite songs, films, or tell us the weather forecast.

Often these ways of communicating reduce the need to speak to another human being. This has led to some of the conversational snippets of our daily lives now taking place mainly via technological devices. So, no longer do we need to talk with shop assistants, receptionists, bus drivers or even co-workers, we simply engage with a screen to communicate whatever it is we want to say.

In fact, in these scenarios, we tend only to speak to other people when the digital technology does not operate successfully. For instance, human contact occurs when we call for an assistant to help us when an item is not recognised at the self-service checkout.

And when we have the ability to connect so quickly and easily with others using technological devices and software applications, it is easy to start to overlook the value of face-to-face conversation. It seems easier to text someone rather than meet with them.

Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, warns that when we first “speak through machines, [we] forget how essential face-to-face conversation is to our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy”. But then “we take a further step and speak not just through machines, but to machines”.

Gary Turk, is a spoken word poet whose poem Look Up illustrates what is at stake by becoming entranced by technological ways of communicating at the expense of connecting with others face-to-face.

Turk’s poem draws attention to the rich, sensory aspects of face-to-face communication, valuing bodily presence in relation to friendship, companionship and intimacy. The central idea running through Turk’s evocative poem is that screen-based devices consume our attention while distancing us from the bodily sense of being with others.

(Credit: Melanie Chan, Senior Lecturer, Media, Communication and Culture, Leeds Beckett University & The Conversation)

We need to talk

Isn’t this bad for us? The best conversations ramble. They have no pre-destination. It is all about the rhythm and flow. It connects us to one another, forges friendships, increases social esteem, raises our mood, generates goodwill, enhances our information and completes our education. And while prices rise and time shrinks, it is a luxury that remains free to us all.

Nonsense. Talk isn’t dead. It’s just presented in ways that are to the point, quicker and easier to articulate. What we lose in tone, we make up for in an emoji.

You Decide

  1. Do you think adults spend too much time on their mobile phones?
  2. Is communication on via app/text “conversation”?


  1. Think of the best conversation you ever had (or one of them). Write 200 words about what made it special.
  2. Listen to Gary Turk’s poem on the Expert Links. Try writing your own short poem about the joys and sorrows of social media.

Some People Say...

“Nothing compares to a beautiful conversation with a beautiful mind”


What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That people are spending much more time connecting through mobiles, apps and screens. That we are in touch with many more people on average every day. That recorded cases of anxiety and loneliness in Western societies are rising steeply.
What do we not know?
That digital communication is the cause of anxiety. It might be the opposite: a cause of comfort and security for most of us. Anxiety might be caused by other pressures. Also we don’t know that more face to face conversation would actually make us happier. We don’t know if there is an average “optimum” amount of time that we need to be in direct contact with people every day. People vary hugely.

Word Watch

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the most famous colleges in the world. It is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA. It has produced (so far) 93 Nobel prize winners.
Gary Turk
He is an award-winning writer, performer and filmmaker who became an Internet sensation following the global success of ‘Look Up’. The video which has attracted over 600 million views worldwide, is a five minute spoken word poetry performance mixed with a filmed narrative which looks at how the overuse of smartphones and social media can disengage us from real experiences, human interactions and living in the real world.


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