Future Conversations

02/21/2013 02:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of taking two seven-year old kids, a boy and a girl, to see a local children's theater production of Pinocchio. We arrived about 15 minutes early -- to get good seats -- and had a bit of time to kill before the beginning of the performance. With nothing to do but wait, the seven-year-old kids looked around the theater and began to fidget. The little boy asked me if I had a phone.

"I do," I answered.

"Can I use it?"

I gave him my iPhone which he started to manipulate, his frustration growing by the minute. He tugged my sleeve.

"Can I make a recommendation? " the precocious boy asked.

Stunned, I said nothing.

"You should really download some games," he suggested.

"You think so?"

"What are you going to do when you get bored?"

I tried to strike up a conversation with the young lad, but he quickly became bored. We lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.

From an early age many contemporary children are immersed in social media, which steal their attention. They have iPads and other devices on which they can play "games." When they travel in cars, they sit in their car seats and watch monitors that play videos of their favorite programs. They seem to live in worlds of continuous stimulation in which interpersonal conversation has become increasingly infrequent. When adults are around, many kids want to be left to their device.

Children, of course, are not the only folks who seem to have been technologically mesmerized into quasi-uncommunicative states. My university students are a case in point. They come to class with their various devices, most of which are mercifully turned off once class begins. When I ask a question, I invariably receive a one word answer. When I suggest it would be better for them -- in class and in life -- to answer questions in complete sentences, they shrug and put forward yet another sentence fragment. As soon as class ends, most of my students usually don't engage one another in conversation. Instead, they take out their devices to listen to whatever messages they might have received during the 75-minute class period.

To make matters even more challenging, most of my students don't read newspapers or magazines -- even those that are on-line. Many of them have never seen a play in a theater. Few of them go museum exhibitions. What's more, they don't go the movies very much. If they read a book, it's more than likely a text that someone like me has assigned as a class reading. My students rarely, if ever, come to see me for a person-to-person interchange in my office, where I usually sit alone during the five hours a week I am supposed to be there. In short, these narrowly focused activities have produced an increasingly large group of "educated" university students who appear to be ignorant of the world in which they live.

At first glance my commentary has all the makings of common inter-generational complaint. Will these kids ever learn how to get beyond their boredom? Will they be able to take part in a give-and-take conversation or debate? Will they ever become cultural as well as cyber citizens?

I don't mean to belittle the wonders of social media that have and will continue to transform -- in positive ways -- our system of education, our access to information networks as well as the texture of our social relations. And yet as a scholar of social life, I wonder what the future will hold?

There will be countless new devices that will accelerate information transfers, sharpen the images we see on our phones and tablets -- devices that will reduce further our attention spans. In universities technological innovation will create a mass audience of distance learners who may never enjoy an eye-opening face-to-face exchange with their professor--one of the priceless experiences of the university experience. If debates in Congress are indicative, emergent patterns of communication may create vast networks of disconnected people who find it difficult to communicate or, worse yet, compromise.

Confronting an incredibly seductive array of "devices" we sometimes forget that the foundation of any society is the ability of its members to interact, communicate, and compromise for the common good. If we lose our capacity to engage in civil and meaningful dialogue and debate, what can we expect when we get bored and have only old "games" to play?

As a professor who has been in the trenches of higher education for more than 30 years, I feel it is the charge of the university to create a real space for dialogue, debate and meaningful social interaction so that our future conversations will ensure the quality of social life as we slip into challenging new worlds. Will our politicians and university administrators support this important mission?