Whatever Happened to Complicated Conversations?

When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information.

NOTE: Thank you to all that sent me comments about my last blog about Grace, Civility, and Humility. This week, I think I might have one of the answers to why those values have declined in American culture. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

The Rise of Technology and Bytes
I am an avid user of today's technology; not all of it; but I have a smartphone, tablet, and desktop, in addition to using various social media outlets and many phone apps. I also just finished Walter Isaacson's book, 'The Innovators', which tracks the people that got us to where we are today in the age of computer usage as an everyday occurrence. (BTW - the first computer language was created by a woman mathematician, Ada Lovelace, in 1843!)

After reading this tome, covering a time span stretching from 1843 to 2014, I have come to a conclusion and a theory.  Technology has missed its primary aim of simplifying our lives by accelerating and simplifying mundane tasks and hopefully, leaving us more time for working to live rather than living to work.

What's That You Say?
I will agree that computing technology succeeded in some of its goals, but it has crippled us in so many other ways. Specifically, it has completely evolved to a time of where oversimplification rules our social interactions. As its creators and masters, we have allowed our machines to dictate and shape how we communicate with each other; i.e., in bits and bytes. Our attention spans have degraded over the past 30 years during the explosive growth and capability of personal computing to where we have tried to compress meaningful communication with our fellow travelers on planet Earth into 280 characters with such apps as Twitter, and 160 characters for text messages. Still, others use email and user forums as their cyber weapon, using their keyboard crusader skills to hurl flames and slash at other people such as they never would if they were standing face-to-face with each other. See, in that I am writing on this subject, I am guilty of it, too!

Human Beings Are Far More Complex than Machines and Bytes
Each person has their own set of complexities, with their own hopes and dreams, and their own personalities. That richness of human experience cannot be measured in bits and bytes, nor can a machine or a device truly develop a relationship with another human being. While a cyber device may serve as a starter to bridge the gap of time and location, it takes time and face-to-face interaction to nurture the growth and development of a relationship.

Language is Very Engaging and Far More Effective Than Texting
I believe that we have allowed computing technology, tweeting, and text messaging, etc., to supplant conversation and serious discussion, period. Why?

  1. For one, we avoid conflict and conflicting situations like the plague.
  2. Second, we as humans, like to simplify things, but perhaps we have gone too far and are vastly oversimplifying very complex situations and have used our computing and communicating technology to further that practice.
  3. Third, in 2018, our country (and possibly the world) has become polarized to such a degree that most of us see everyday situations as either black or white, this way or that way, and finally, "You're either with us or against us!" In other words, tribalism.
  4. Last, our elected officials further propagate this type of dialogue by promoting divisiveness to please their constituencies. And, worse, we allow ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults, instead of exposing their motivations. As a result, instead of engaging in real conflict, we have allowed it to escalate and snuffed the complexity out of conversations.

How Did This Happen?
The media understands certain things about human psychology: they know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. As humans, we can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories do require conflict, characters, and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations. Conflict is crucial because it is what moves a democracy forward. But, as long as the media is content to let conflict sit like it is, it is abdicating the power it once had to help people find a way through the conflict.

(The following is excerpted from an excellent article: https://thewholestory.solutionsjournalism.org/complicating-the-narratives-b91ea06ddf63

Your Brain In Conflict
Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book 'The Five Percent,' and it’s very similar to the kind of nasty feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

In this hypervigilant state, we feel an instinctive need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.

Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.”

Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “Everyone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”

There are ways to disrupt an intractable conflict, as history bears out. Over decades of work, in laboratories and on the margins of battlefields, scholars have identified dozens of ways to break out of the trap, some of which are directly relevant to the media.

In every case, the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be sure of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter.

Next Week: Amplifying Contradictions