Chatting Without A Keyboard?


I was riding the subway in New York City last Sunday when a family of four got on the train. It looked like they had been out together to go to a museum or street fair in Manhattan and boarded the subway for the ride home. They sat down, mother and daughter on one side and father and son across the aisle. The father pulled out an iPhone, the mom had a Blackberry and each of the youngsters, both of elementary school age, pulled out an electronic pocket game and everyone got busy tapping away. I exited off after six stops, only about 10 minutes, but none of the four of them had said a word to one another or even seemed to look up from their little screens.

It’s hard not to sound like my parents and start out by saying “in my day” but I’ll try to resist. Instead I’ll ask a question: wouldn’t it be a richer experience for everyone if there was some communication about what they had experienced, were experiencing, or were planning to experience? Is this the same thing people said about my generation when we sat glued to the TV screens or are people really losing the desire—and more importantly, the skills—to engage in verbal conversation? When you actually speak with someone that’s different from exchanging digital text but will the next generation even consider doing that?

At our offices, it’s rare you’ll hear an office phone ring; our employees use the company IM system whether they’re communicating with someone in an adjacent country—or an adjacent cubicle. I was still pondering all this when I turned on the news the following morning. That was when I heard the report about Columbia University setting up a game—with cash prizes—to get undergraduate students to communicate with one another face-to-face without a keyboard. In the so-called “Social Experiment,” the more people each student speaks to within a week, the better his or her chances of winning a $500 prize.

My mother used to wonder, “What do I have to do to get you to stop talking?” Perhaps that’s no longer a problem for most parents today.