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The Dial-in Conversation: When Auto-Responders Meet

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At a certain age, does everyone feel like they have had every conversation they are ever going to have -- that every conversation (other than those with intimates) is pre-packaged, as if chosen from a sampler menu on an airplane playlist? Is it an inevitable part of living longer, that conversations begin to feel like some kind of strange dance in which we follow a pre-determined script but nothing new is actually shared? Or, possibly, is conversation itself in the process of changing?

From what I can remember, in just the last couple days I have successfully (or so I imagine) dialed in the following pre-digested conversations:

  • Having a dog in the city
  • City vs. suburb life, car vs. walking, peace vs. energy
  • Country house vs. new weekend adventures
  • Change in air travel experience
  • Preschool admission process
  • Real estate (everywhere) in relation to New York
  • Date night for mom and dad/need for
  • The glassification of the urban landscape
  • Career nanny vs. young vibrant babysitter choice
  • Youth texting/screen time addiction
  • Children's birthday parties/costs/frequency
  • Overscheduled children/old days when we had to create a game from a stick/organized classes vs. street play
  • Costco shopping/bulk toilet paper

And these are just the handful I can remember. The 100-calorie conversation -- all subjects available for purchase in snack-size pouches.

Within these pre-packaged interactions can be found an infinite array of standardized danglers, the little niceties we toss at one another that mean less than nothing. Perhaps we do all this because we believe that this is what we are supposed to do as members of society? "Safe travel," "Everything good?" "Where did the summer go?" "Take good care of you," "Better to end vacation when it's raining than sunny!" "Enjoy it now, it goes so fast." "Three kids, two hands." And on it goes...

While I don't recall agreeing to play a part in this grand performance, nonetheless, every day I watch as I too cheerfully embark into the land of canned dialogue, as if I were reading words off an internal teleprompter. Like puppets, we lip synch our pre-scripted parts with the proper enthusiasm and feigned newness, dutifully behaving as good members of society. Despite the ease with which it all unfolds, in the midst of it, I often hear myself silently asking, "Really... are we going to do this... this dance that we are trained to do, this exchange of language that means nothing, and that we have done a thousand times before?" So too, I wonder who wrote this script that we all recite from cellular memory for reasons that we don't even know? Nonetheless, as the thoughts stream through, I continue dancing the touch-less dance. With furrowed brow, the seal still balances the bowling pin on her nose.

Recently, while pondering these questions, my attention was drawn to my cat and dog, who were playing on the floor below me. The two are best friends, as if brother and sister... the boy being so active and the girl so relational right from the start (oops... I accidentally pressed the son vs. daughter switch on my conversation playlist). In any case, the two animals spend a lot of time (and seem to deeply enjoy) just bumping and nudging each other. But the scene got me thinking. Maybe conversation is not really about the content of the words but rather a way of simply establishing contact that is friendly and acknowledging. It might be that all these pre-scripted conversations and time-consuming niceties are akin to my Shiba Inu smushing her nose into her big orange companion, a way to acknowledge those with whom we share the same floor at the same time in history.

I am an optimist and thus I enjoy a warm-hearted interpretation of our pre-scripted conversations as some form of human bumping and smushing. And yet, deep down, I worry that this societal play that we are performing has more pessimistic implications. I can't help but wonder if the rise of technology, as the primary form of communication in our culture, is not related to our conversations sounding more and more like computer-generated recordings.

I am fairly certain that we used to use conversation as a way to connect, get closer, bridge the separation we feel. Conversation is now becoming a means to just the opposite end -- something that we use to disconnect and avoid contact; a dance in which nobody touches. The pre-packaged interaction that we are dialing in with increasing ease and regularity acts as a foam pad through which we humans are less and less able to pass.

Is it possible that conversation itself is being kidnapped by the technological milieu of our time? Is conversation becoming a franchised product, like a mahogany side table at Restoration Hardware -- and thereby disappearing into a corporate-sponsored vacuum? As conversation morphs into pre-digested, bite-sized portions, I wonder how, where and if we will form bridges with those we don't know. Perhaps new means will be found -- computer programs that bypass the need for fresh conversation. Or perhaps, like our tail, the need for conversation and connection will simply be bred out of the species -- no longer necessary for optimum productivity. For now, I suppose we are left to watch and wait, and most importantly, refrain from turning this dialogue into another pre-packaged and disposable version of itself. Stay tuned...

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