Perhaps you have noticed that young people don't talk on the telephone anymore. So widely true is this that it probably wouldn't make much difference - except to thee and me - if manufacturers just ditched the voice function on those mini computers we still call phones.
Not long ago, the thank you for a box of gifts I'd mailed to a young friend's toddler arrived via text message: “He loves it,” typed 30-something Mom. I'm still don't know which “it” - there were several - he loves.
It's a new world. Even friends in their forties and fifties prefer texting or just checking in with one another's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. I know a lot of you live on such services which is why I distribute TGB and The Elder Storytelling Place posts to them. But for me, it's not the same thing as a conversation.
Remember all those years in the past when the phone rang (we didn't know back then who was calling until we answered) and most of the time we settled down for a chat, long or short, with a friend?
In those days, I spoke with my closest friends and relatives several times a week. With no email then, we used the telephone to plan social engagements but even when the point was only to set a time and place to meet for brunch or dinner or a movie, we took a few minutes to catch up on our lives.
Nowadays, we use email (or texts, I suppose, for some) to make appointments for phone calls – those few of us who still like to hear the voices of people we care about. Are we all really so busy – especially now that many of us are retired – that it has become rude to interrupt anyone by calling without a previous agreement as to time?
Of the barely half dozen friends I still regularly talk with on the phone, there is only one I call or who calls me without prior arrangement via email.
TGB reader Tom Delmore sent me a link to an essay at the Wall Street Journal suggesting something the writer, David Gelernter, calls Talknet:
”It will run like any app, on a tablet or a laptop right beside you. When you turn on Talknet, you hear a jumble of voices in your favorite language.
“You see five upright rectangles in a row on-screen, in five bright colors. These are 'featured conversations,' like a diner’s daily specials, but they change regularly: You see a whole new set every five minutes, and they are selected with your tastes in mind.
“Each rectangle is labeled with a topic. Tap or click one—Rubio v. Bush, schnauzers, wisteria in zone 6, grandchildren’s weddings, school board election in Woodbridge, Conn. You hear the conversation you’ve chosen: 10 people at most, anywhere in the world, chatting.”
Gelernter, a Yale computer scientist, tells us that unlike everyone else online, elders want to talk so his idea for Talknet is “inevitable.” He knows this, he says, because
”I said the same about the rise of the Web (which I called the 'mirror world') in 1991 and Twitter-type streams (which I called 'lifestreams') in 1996, so this is no wild prediction, I hope.
“Talknet has large implications. But its first task is to help the elderly. They need it, and we owe them.”
Whew. All that grandiosity is a bit much and it's that paternalistic tone in his voice that ticked me off at the start of his story:
”No group needs social network software more than the elderly,” he starts out. “We have built a frenzied society full of shriek TV, shriek music, shriek movies, shriek ads. Texting and phone-fondling go on ceaselessly. None of this welcomes the elderly, who were often lonely even before we turned up the volume on American society.
“So it’s too bad that today’s social networks are virtually useless to them. The elderly don’t want to type; they want to talk. And if they can’t make sense of new software in 10 seconds, they move on.
“Audio is our first requirement. Losing dexterity is part of aging, and arthritis is not exactly rare.”
There is both truth and not in that lead-in but either way, his tone is irritating.
On the other hand, he is right about elders generally being more comfortable with speech than other modern means of communication and god knows, for a decade I've been promoting the internet as a great invention for elders to reach out, make new friends and keep in touch.
Maybe Talknet would be an excellent extension of what we have been doing these past two decades.
Galernter describes his idea of Talknet in great detail that includes scheduling regularly chats during TV shows for example, creating new topics, taking conversations private and more all done with speech.
The problem for me, however, is that I want to talk with friends, not strangers and it's my younger friends who don't want to. Plus, it sounds, in his description, that there would be so many conversations to choose from it would come down to no choice at all.
But I could be wrong. You can read Gelernter's whole essay here. If for some reason it won't display because you don't have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal,” here is the trick to getting it:
• Copy this headline, with the quotation marks, into a Google search: “A Social Network for Talkers”
• On the Google return page, click on the link to the newspaper (usually the one at the top) and it should open
(If you're wondering, the trick is not a secret. It's been available since the newspaper went behind a paid firewall and without doubt, the Wall Street Journal is aware of it. So far, they have chosen not to block it.)
After you've read the full idea for Talknet, come back here and let us know what you think.