Monday, July 25, 2011

On the Danger of Devaluing Conversation

I seem to have spent a fair amount of time recently brooding over Max Weber’s warning about the “loss of meaning” in a society that becomes too preoccupied with marketplaces.  From this point of view, I wanted to raise a red flag over a word whose loss of meaning may be particularly hazardous.  That word is “conversation;”  and it means a lot to me, because I happen to have been working for Fuji Xerox back when Xerox decided to launch “keep the conversation going” as a marketing slogan.  Ironically, this phrase seems to have originated with Richard Rorty, whose Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argued that "keeping the conversation going" was fundamental to the practice of philosophy;  but it is hard to imagine Xerox promoting either products or services on the basis of their contributions to the work of philosophers.

Back in the early days of social software, I posed the question, “What if we all gathered in conversation and nobody had anything to say?”  My point was that this was a technology in which the very nature of interaction, so fundamental to how we socialize, might get overwhelmed by an onslaught of babble for the sake of babble, rather along the lines of what we now see in so much of the use of Twitter.  I suggested that the very semantics of “conversation” might get undermined by a new form of “hollow conversation.”

However, it was only while reading The Social Construction of Reality:  A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge, by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, that I realized how fundamental conversation was.  Indeed, it was fundamental enough to be relevant to the interests of the Xerox Corporation, at least back when Xerox was trying to establish itself in the knowledge management market.  Here is the critical passage from this book about conversation:

To be sure, an individual usually remembers the realities of his past.  But the way to “refresh” these memories is to converse with those who share their relevance.

This immediately resonated with me, because one of the key problems of knowledge management involved the effective maintenance of organizational memory:  Is it possible for the knowledge of the individual to “migrate” to the organization as a whole;  and, if so, how is this achieved?  Conventional wisdom assumed that this was a problem to be solved by bigger and better databases with bigger and better search tools.  Some even argued that Google had “solved” the organizational memory problem.  Only a few of us suggested that “artifacts of knowledge” were far less important than “acts of knowing” and that conversation was probably the most fundamental such act of knowing.

Berger and Luckmann reinforced this position by suggesting that memory itself depended on conversation;  and it was gratifying to see that they did this back in 1966, back in the same time frame when Jacques Derrida was warning against the problems of dependency on “dead and rigid knowledge.”  Unfortunately, a culture that has lost touch with the value of history has also lost touch with the nature of memory.  As a result, we have become a culture in which not only is there conversation with nothing to say but also there are technologies of knowledge management with no “knowledge to manage.”

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