I read an article last March in the Atlantic magazine that had me thinking about conversations, and what it means to be human. The author of the article heads to the annual Turing Test, which, (paraphrasing the article) brings together the world’s most advanced artificial-intelligence programs and ordinary people to find out whether a computer can act “more human” than a person. It does so by having programmers create computer algorithms to text chat with humans (think SmarterChild on AOL Instant Messenger).
The test is, can humans be fooled into thinking they are talking to another human when they’re really just texting a computer? Lots of heavy ideas here, but I’d like to just focus on one that the author mentions: stateless conversations. What is a stateless conversation? One in which each reply depends only on the last sentence said, without any knowledge of the history (state) of the conversation. These are the easiest conversations for computers to simulate (just let someone talk for as long as they want, and then pick a key word in their last sentence and ask them about it) and unfortunately, a common type of human conversation. You give someone a detailed synopsis of how your day went, and then at the end you may say “and then I finally arrived home”. After a second they ask “where is home these days?” And you keep at it about how you moved out of your old place and are now living with a new roommate who doesn’t take out the garbage. Then they start talking about the garbage.
As you can see, you’d be better off having these conversations with a sophisticated computer; they are more patient than any human you will ever come across, and they will let you talk about you as much as you want! At the end of a state-less conversation you don’t really get anywhere.
So what kind of conversations are worth having then? I like an analogy of a tree. The conversation is rooted in shared experience, which is beneath the surface and may not be voiced but is none-the-less still present. The core of the conversation has this solid central movement that reaches towards the sky, and then there’s all sorts of branches which go off in every which direction (sometimes producing their own flower at their end) yet they all invariably lead back to the source. Another friend explained his favorite conversations as like a jazz improv: everyone brings their own instruments and knows the general rules, and within those logical rules they build a momentum that could go any which way at any given moment, and they are all working together to create something beautiful. The key to both analogies here is that you are building something meaningful with others.
How would you characterize your most fulfilling conversations? And how often do you have them? To me, these are the only conversations really worth having. That is why I am often invisible on most chat programs, and contributes to why I am okay with periodic stretches of solitude…state-less conversation is time that could be better spent!
I’ll close here with a favorite quote from Walden: “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” And that was written long before the internet…imagine what Thoreau would think of our society today.