I worked the graveyard shift at the hospital when the boys were small. I doubt the second son remembers it, the first son only vaguely. Everyone comments what an odd bunch of people gravitate to the overnight shift, but I loved it. A coworker from another floor would drop in to chat on his "lunch" hour, and I mentioned how fascinating the conversations were among the night people. He looked at me a long time. "No," he corrected, "only where you are." I still hardly believe it, yet I know it is true. Conversation is of enormous importance to me, and I have long since learned to pull your most fascinating side out of you, if you are at all cooperative. Many of the Wymans have this knack. Our boys were trained to it, and even the Romanians got better at it than they ever intended. As boys wolfed down dinners and tried to escape to some non-parental area we would protest "No, stay and make scintillating conversation" in the semi-ironic way that we used to stretch vocabulary and wit.
That was the prologue to the prologue. Hold that thought.
It’s hardly original to note that there have been drastic social changes over the last century. Nor is there a shortage of commentary about the social changes of the last decade. The former is about marriage and divorce, number of children, social and phsyical mobility, and civil rights. The latter discussion revolves around communication and social networking. I don’t think I’ve seen much that puts the two together to describe the very different social world we live in compared to our ancestors. Certainly, there were great upheavals leading up to the 20th C – migrations to the New World, trade and the emergence of a middle class, the progressive fragmentation of the Christian church, nationalism and common liberty – yet in very real ways, day to day life was similar in 1909 to 1809. 1809 was similar to 1709, or 1609.
The two partial exceptions to this were the lives of African-Americans and Native Americans. Yet even here the changes can be summarised quickly, and were not all encompassing. Abolition created freedom of movement, which allowed escape from physical abuse and forced separation of families. But this free movement resulted in families fragmenting, particularly as the young moved away. The forced stillness of the reservation system paradoxically also drove family fragmentation as the young moved away. Yet work was still hard – brutally hard for some. People married once, or perhaps twice if widowed. Folks had many more children, stayed put most of their lives, and had a very narrow circle of friends. They had neighbors, church friends, work associates, and extended family. This almost sounds similar to today, or at least, to a generation ago, except that those four circles overlapped enormously. They were the same people in different contexts.
All that was prologue. Sorry.
If you wanted to have a stimulating conversation in those days, what would you do? They were few and far between, and seldom in groups. In the city, you might find a pub, tea room, or a coffee house that was congenial. Or you might have a subgroup at church, or the Grange, or at Odd Fellows interested in more adventurous discussion. If you were luckiest of all, your own family might provide the intellectual heft and variety you desired. But not every night. And not usually a wide range of topics. It was from this world that children went to college, where stimulating conversation abounded. Adolescents are shallow in intellect, true, and every successive cohort thinks the same ideas are new, but it is still a world of difference. Even at its most pseudo, it was still intellectual compared to boring old Mom and Dad talking about insurance policies, lawns, and the annual Kiwanis Kapers. (I did like those guys who painted faces on their stomachs though, their navels being the mouths whistling "The Bridge Over The River Kwai." That still cracks me up.) People thought grand thoughts about mythology and philosophy and futurism, even if they were secondhand grandness. Then you would graduate and hope to find a group of people you could work with or at least see frequently who would replicate this hothouse intellectual environment. Not easy.
The closest approximation, and an excellent one for many reasons, was to read books. A book is a sustained conversation with another person, providing the stimulation that many of us crave. Crave is not too strong a word. To those who have not experienced this addiction to ideas and information I can hardly describe it. There is something Faustian about it.
I can have those conversations every night now, as many as I want, limited only by the hours in the day and the needs that must be addressed to keep body and soul together in the real world. I go to my sidebar plus a few other sites and absorb ideas. On those sites which have discussions, I can contribute in a simulacrum of an actual conversation. Occasionally I try to prime the pump with a comment at sites which, like mine, seldom have extended discussion. This must surely be a change in the universe. Imagine if you can what one such as I would have experienced in any other age. I know you can imagine this, because many of you are in the same situation I am.
What is worrisome is how less necessary conversation with actual people has become. There are few groups, and fewer individuals, who can now compete with the internet for interest of conversation. The social networking sites hold few charms for me - the intensity of idea-sharing in the blogosphere is more to my taste.
I don't imagine the blogosphere can go on forever. Things change too quickly, and new modes will come forth. But we addicts who have now experienced the stronger drug will drive ways of preserving this 24/7/365 availability of conversation. Will that next iteration be an even stronger drug, and will I narrow my live circle further and further?
And what will happen to our sort in future generations? We are likely to be the cutting edge of virtual worlds. Though perhaps not, as the current virtual worlds have no more depth of conversation than the real one.
I worry if this is the dream-stage of Dr. Faustus or Dr. Jekyll, where everything goes unbelievably well, but is unsustainable.