Sunday, June 10, 2012

The economics of conversation

Full disclosure: I don't actually know much about the discipline of economics, although I have recently read some of the work that engages behavioural economists.  What I know is mostly what we all know: that here in North America we cannot compete economically unless we can win the competition for the best ideas. And the best ideas now seem to be the ideas that we produce collaboratively. Authors like Jonah Lehrer (Creativity)  and Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) have been popularizing research that shows we do our best thinking when we engage with other smart people - even when we're working on different things.

This seems to hinge on an ability that we don't teach and may be neglecting to a point where we lose it. The ability is conversation: the exchange of ideas and imaginings and feelings. The idea of conversation comes from those long, wonderful talks where two or more people are face to face and mind to mind. But that kind of conversation doesn't happen the same way through electronic screens.

Interesting that the word screen simultaneously means that thing through which we communicate electronically and that thing that blocks off or hides or filters what passes between one space and another. Screens allow some elements of conversation to pass between people and block many more. Without the idea of conversation between people who occupy the same physical place, it's hard to know how people can engage in electronic conversations for stimulation, collaboration, and challenge.

I feel strongly about this. I believe in rich, warm, engaging conversation. I believe in working through conversations that are difficult because they involve hard choices or exploration of unfamiliar situations. I believe that people need to talk to each other in a way that makes everyone smarter or more connected or more alive. I love great conversation.

The work I do teaches other people to appreciate and improve their conversations. I love this work.

I believe the world needs more of this work. There's a lot of bad writing around - writing that is incongruent or unsatisfying or incomplete. Some of it is in entertainment and some in what might be called 'public discourse' - the wide open field of the web and the media. Some of it is in academics. There's enough bad writing to go around. Bad writing wouldn't be so bad if it didn't occur exactly where we expect to find models of great conversation. If the people with a script writer can't have great conversations, how will ordinary people sitting with email know how to construct words that carry meaning that connects?

It seems likely that we don't know how to talk to each other in the big, fancy, expensive ways because we are getting less good at just chatting with each other in person. More and more work is arranged to enable formal discussion or trivial discussion instead of promoting great conversations. More and more social life happens in texts and tweets and status updates. None of these are capable of the deep, wide flow of conversation.

When was the last time you were part of a great conversation? I am very, very lucky because I have them almost every week. I work hard at creating the space where conversation can happen - even though it is expensive and often seems unproductive. I believe that every moment when people are fully engaged and connected ultimately pays off. I say believe, because I can't prove that this is true.

Still - when people call the skills of conversation "soft" - I wonder. I wonder what they think will happen as these skills become soft and flabby and unpopular. I wonder how they think we'll sustain our economy without the skills that make collaboration and innovation possible.  To me, these are hard skills (hard to learn and hard to practice) that will be very hard to lose.

So yes, I'm a little bit fanatic about this one. And I'd love to have a long chat with you about it - maybe over a tea or a beer . . .

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