Ian Hunter wonders, with the advance of cellphones and other technology, what happened to the art of conversation? CNS photo/Karen Callaway

This Luddite prefers gentle art of conversation

  • May 8, 2012

“I wish to register a complaint.”  This famous opening line of the Dead Parrot skit by Monty Python, I hereby appropriate to register a blanket complaint concerning cyberlouts.

Cyberlouts come in a variety of guises, including those who persist in using cellphones when I am trying to speak with them. Faced with such rudeness in private conversation, I can (and do) walk away. No big deal.

But I recently encountered cyberlouts on, of all places, the golf course where the perennially exasperating problem of slow play was made worse by golfers in the group ahead calling and texting between shots. No less inconsiderate is being put on hold by the person to whom you are speaking by telephone in order that he or she can check out a call waiting.

Then the final humiliation came not long ago. I was cross-examining an expert witness who never raised his eyes to meet mine. At first I attributed this to my devastatingly clever questions — “I must be rattling his confidence,” I thought. Then I noticed that I couldn’t see his hands, so I sidled closer to the witness box and, sure enough, he was thumb-texting on his Blackberry while grunting monosyllabic responses to my questions.

Enough already! In future, I demand observance of conversational etiquette. If my plea falls upon deaf ears then I am prepared to organize street demonstrations (check your iPhone for location) or to petition Parliament for legislation. I think there is a quite good case for non-partisan support; Canadians of all parties like nothing better than bringing down the heavy hand of the law to compel behaviour that should have been instilled by proper toilet-training and a civilized upbringing.

Even my brother, a philosophy professor who lives for the most part in the 17th century (he has never owned a TV and travels mostly by bicycle), now sends e-mails to my ancient Commodore 64 that have a line across the bottom saying: “Sent from my Blackberry.” Help! I know that the Blackberry manufacturer, RIM, is facing trouble in the market, but if their penetration has reached to my other-worldly brother then the market is saturated. What hope can there be for them?

“Luddites” was the name given to workers of the early 19th century who were angered by the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and gave vent to their frustrations by smashing up textile machinery in Yorkshire and elsewhere. They feared that this sophisticated machinery was about to replace weavers and loom operators and that jobs inevitably would be lost. They claimed allegiance to King Ludd, whom I am sorry to report never existed. Since then, anyone opposed to technological innovation is quickly branded a Luddite. For me, the appellation is roughly equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Incidentally, many of the original Luddites were hanged or sent to Botany Bay (Australian exile). I suppose that hanging might send one beyond the range of cellphones, but not Australia. I rather suspect that in Hell cellphones are the preferred — perhaps the only mode of communication. Likewise, Beelzebub is an only slightly more sinister influence than Bell.

Anyway, I have decided to opt out. I have shut off my cellphone. Increasingly I do not answer my land line since most calls are from someone in Bombay dying to send me money or from local merchants offering to sell me services I do not want.

I wonder if Alexander Graham Bell, by all accounts a remarkably decent man who began his career in the 1870s by teaching deaf-mutes, ever imagined that his invention (first called “visible speech”) would ruin the gentle art of conversation? As for his eponymous company, after decades of being chivvied and badgered by them, it will be a distinct pleasure to bid Bell a not-so-fond adieu.

I enjoy the image of gently floating backward as society charges forward. It is contrarian and age appropriate. I like to think that Homer would have agreed. Roughly 3,000 years ago he wrote of “A green old age, unconscious of decays / That proves the hero born in better days.”

And no, I will not text you the source.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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