Facing up to the task

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2011, 12:00am

Facebook and text messaging are killing off conversation. I've noticed it in my teenage son and his friends and, increasingly, in the generation before them. Getting them to utter more than monosyllabic words is a chore, their missives are short, staccato and pocked with spelling and grammatical errors, and in person, they are shy and impatient, clearly needing to get back to something more important. But take away the face-to-face contact, give them a mobile phone, a tablet or a computer, and they will happily send reams of words - not always coherent or logical, but words nonetheless.

Here is an example, received by e-mail: 'When wl U B hom.' I e-mailed back, wondering what that was meant to be. The reply was, '?' So I phoned my son; the call was not picked up, so I left a voice message. Then another e-mail: 'Home soon?' Having got the gist of what it was all about, I sent off a time and that was that. But it would have been so much quicker, straightforward and less frustrating if I had received a phone call in the first place.

My mother complains endlessly about it. Whenever she phones her grandchildren, the talk at the other end of the line generally comprises a series of yeses or noes and there is clicking in the background; texting, Facebook updating or computer games are plainly concurrently in progress. The experiences are not satisfying, nor are the semi-literate e-mail responses she gets.

I realise that younger readers are at this point calling me a nerd. My older son thinks of me this way for being such a stickler about spelling and grammar. Certainly, my parents used to complain about my behaviour when I was a teenager, finding me awkward and uncommunicative. That is a generational matter, though - it is a common trait that is usually grown out of.

If only Facebook had existed when I was a teenager. I was shy and a book reader; I liked nothing more than a quiet place so that I could get on undisturbed with the latest science fiction offering by Philip K. Dick or his ilk. If there was any communicating to be done, I would have been able to quickly send off a text message and get back to the real business of immersing myself in a fantasy world. But such technology did not exist back then and, with adulthood and my ambition to become a journalist, it was soon apparent that to eke out an existence, I would have to be able to talk face-to-face to people with a measure of confidence.

In the Facebook age, that reality seems to have gone out the window. With so much business being done over the internet, there is often no longer a need for people to talk. Meetings do not take place, phone calls are not made; an e-mail or a text message suffices. It is the perfect world for someone grown accustomed to teenage familiarities.

Unfortunately, some parts of our government seem to have slipped into such ways. An official task force set up 13 years ago to improve indoor air quality has met only eight times and, despite a marked increase in concern about what we breathe, just once since 2003. The group, comprising officials from three bureaus and 10 departments, told the Audit Commission that communicating by mail and internal circulation rather than meeting was more 'cost-effective'. Meetings were held only if 'absolutely necessary'.

Our outdoor air quality is appalling - we have got our own eyes and frequently updated government data to prove that. Indoors, though, we are not so sure as there is no official monitoring mechanism in place. Evidence from the few independent specialists working in the area is that it can be as bad, or worse. In older or poorly constructed or poorly maintained buildings, levels of bacteria-sized particulates, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and chemicals can be many times higher than the government's outdated guidelines.

There is a time and place for Facebook, text messages, MSN and e-mails. I am trying to teach my younger son that. Sending pictures electronically can sometimes explain a point better than a phone call. But there is no excuse for government committees to not meet regularly or communicate in person. Losing the art of communication is guaranteed to fare us poorly as a society.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post