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Friday, April 12, 2013

to conversation

On one on one of the many, many holidays we have had recently I was walking to the shop and I saw this group of three. There were 2 girls and a boy. They weren’t significant in anything, not their dressing, not their gait but something demanded that I look at them more carefully. What it was was that they all had earphones in their ears, and not in one ear the way people do when they have no idea how rude they are being but both the way they do when there is no one around but them and their music. It was obvious that they were together, the way they walked, the tight formation they kept, but it was also obvious that they weren’t. Not in any conversational way at least, they had stoppered the world and each other from intrusion into their own personal space.

The last group of three people Inoticed I can remember pretty well, I remember that it was outside the chips shop near the university of Nairobi where there’s a flyover coming together now. I was walking behind them and some or all of them must have been audibly Impaired. You see as they walked they were signing to each other. It was beautiful in that way that only silence can be, the conversation seemed to have all the contours of a normal conversation, excitement and maybe even interruption though I’m not sure this is strictly possible, it looked like they were walking through another world as if they were in a bubble where action became speech.

I wonder about technology and what it can do that can brings us together as a species. The truth is probably a lot. I am much more connected to the people in the US and UK, and the Ukraine and Russia and all these other random places that I get blog hits from than I could ever have been if there had been no internet. What it does to our interpersonal connections may be a different story though. Without internet, without television, without interruptions I would probably have been much closer to my family and friends than I am now. The thing about technology is that it increases the quantity of our connections, like a good book it plugged us more into the idea of being human as a species, as a whole than anything else before it. Every human being should know Bob Marley for example because that’s one of our cultural landmarks but we only know him because of radio waves and all the things that made the world smaller. Every human being should know the moods and emotions of the people around them, they should know their neighbours and when they walk with people they should be able to talk to them but because of technology a lot of times these things are not necessary.

I don’t think technology is to blame, not wholly because sometimes we just don’t know the person we spend so much of our time with. They can’t talk to us for this or that reason and they are scared that we don’t understand what they are going through. And this is one place where technology has managed to improve in some way the quality of human interaction. It reminds us that we are not alone, somewhere someone else has gone through an experience that we have and now we can hear about it and read about it and not feel so alone.

I was sad, very sad some time back and I was reading a book called East of Eden. It was one of those books that felt God-sent it had had all these passages on grief and how to deal with it. It wasn’t a self-help book but a novel, a novel in which a lot of sad things happened and the characters needed to comfort each other. One of them said about grief, “given enough time you won’t remember how you felt, you’ll just remember that you felt it.” Isn’t that better than the generic “it will be ok” that I now believe grief stricken people hate to hear. It doesn’t matter that it’s true; it feels false, it feels like a sentiment that this person did not work very hard for; it feels too generic to fit the specific kind of pain that any sort of grief brings. This sentiment though was all that was waiting for me outside the pages of this book (though primitive this is still a kind of technology.) either that or forced small talk because you can’t share your sadness with just anyone. When I was lost in that book I didn’t feel sad, my life receded and what happened to the characters mattered.

I would get on buses and not want to sit near any of my classmates and one time this guy sat next to me. I tried, I tried to talk to him but nothing in our conversation could bring me out of myself. As soon as he picked up his phone to text someone I brought out my book and began to read. I justified it to myself that I needed this more than I needed to be nice, that it was a special situation and I wouldn’t ordinarily do this and in the end I felt really bad about it. Not as bad as I would have felt without that escape from the world but bad enough that I remember that I felt it months later.

Everyone, anyone can agree that it’s rude to pick up a book and begin to read it in the company of other people. It’s not something that we take lightly, especially not in a social situation. I notice the person who does that and I think many people do. How come this is a worse crime than listening to your earphones when you are with somebody. It’s difficult to know exactly why someone is listening to their earphones when they are with you(I guess I should say listening to music or something) maybe they too need that escape that only music at that time can provide. Many times that’s not true though and I don’t get why it’s more socially acceptable to listen to music than to read. If I had the book on my phone I would have whipped it out and read and he would have assumed I was doing something that had to do with communication. There would have been almost no guilt there.

For some reason we are more accepting of more recent technological innovations taking us away from the present place and time. I wouldn’t argue that we should be ok with people reading books at parties and at pubs. I think I would argue instead that people shouldn’t read on their I-pads(or play temple run-that’s all I do when someone lends me an I-pad) when they are in the company of others. Technology and probably modern living have taken away the beauty of conversation, the lilting rhythms that words used to have when older people spoke them.

Ise chiewo?
Ase chiewo.
Have you already woken up?
I have already woken up.
All these things that our grandmothers said to us that kicked in the urge for sarcasm somewhere in us. There was probably a reason for that. Time was a more elastic thing then and that’s probably changed more because of modern living but conversation has also staled in its own way. Why would a city like Nairobi, a city of millions of inhabitants not have a lounge where I can go and sit and drink and talk without shouting over music so loud I wake up with a ring in my ears. How is it possible that there is no market for people who want to talk at night instead of shout, who value the rhythm of that conversation much more than they do the beat of music they didn’t choose. The only option is to go to a local(bars near your living area that are usually considered dingy because, well many of them are you see locals are never known for their clean toilets.)

It’s foolish to make an argument for less technology in a place where only technology allows it to be seen. So I’ll try not to so much anymore. It’s necessary, it’s a part of our lives, we evolved to it and this is how our brains work now. The sheer quantity of connections and knowledge we make and access makes us feel more alive. A conversation can do that to, so consider this an argument for conversation. One of the most beautiful art forms the world has ever had.


  1. I generally have my earphones on when I read at parties. No, I'm not helping. I'm a certified loner though, so I really don't count.*cheeky grin* I see your point about grandmothers and sarcasm though, so you still win :-)