AS I have mentioned in recent columns, people and society as a whole appear to be ceding moral and ethical decision making to the corporate realm of Facebook, Google and other web-based networks.

The vacant space which was once filled by active conversations in families, among friends, neighbourhoods and local communities has been taken over by cybernauts, floating untethered in the internet ether.

Sometimes they're real, sometimes they're fake, sometimes they're giving, sometimes they take. The difficulty is working out what to believe and how to respond.

Meanwhile at mission control they fiddle with the dials and the settings trying to establish some kind of rules of engagement to halt the waves of hate, trolling and vicious attacks on any opinion that does not fit the world view of some lone sniper, camouflaged by anonymity.

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Holding an opinion means potentially holding your own in a brutal, verbal assault conducted in a manner that most people would find offensive if it was said to their face.

There is a clanging dissonance between the catchcry of corporate internet providers that they are "creating new ways for people to connect" and the way these same services are actually disconnecting us all by replacing real conversations with ersatz digital dialogue.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies at MIT discusses this change in social behaviour in Reclaiming Conversation - The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Her book makes a strong case for a loss of conversation skills among those born into the era of the cellphone and iPad.

She describes encountering situations in which these tech natives, living in a world with open borders, acknowledge their own lack of skills in handling conversations. They find it hard to talk in a meaningful way to others around them, especially having the difficult conversations - the ones that forge, strengthen or end relationships between colleagues, friends or family.

These are now done via text or online formats as this makes it easier to manage because there is no need to look the other person in the eye, facing the possibility of challenge.

The author extends this shift to using technology for dialogue and the consequent diminishing skills for conversation to a potential loss of empathy.

Research suggest this loss comes about as people do not engage in conversations of depth, keeping to light and easy matters if there is a phone present because it may require attention at any time - even when the phone is in silent mode. This straitjacket effect on conversations leaves less room for understanding and empathy.

Professor Turkle describes the way new social norms have emerged to meet the continual "need" to check your phone with a minimum of guilt.

Students named this the "rule of three". If eating out with a group of friends, the rule is that if at least three people are not looking down at their phones then it is okay for you to check your phone and not feel so bad.

This odd mix of guilt and mannered manners indicates we have reached a new horizon where technology and human skills have sailed off the edge into an unknown part of the map.

It is becoming ever more important that we do not let technology fill the spaces that were once filled with people holding conversations. If the way we laugh, argue, chat about the weather, talk of birth or death, love and loathing is via machines rather than directly with those around us, then we risk becoming merely digital cyphers.

-Terry Sarten (aka Tel) is a writer, musician and social worker - feedback welcomed: tgs@inspire.net.nz