A few months after we moved to Huntington, Indiana, I was inducted into the Cosmopolitan Club, one of the country’s oldest extant discussion societies. Chartered on January 18, 1894, the Cosmopolitan Club convenes on the fourth Tuesday of every month from September through May. The membership is entirely male and capped at 25, and all members are required to attend each meeting, unless they have been excused in advance.
The format of the meetings is simple. One member prepares and presents a paper on a topic of his choosing, and he selects another member to prepare and present a response. (All of the papers are archived at the Huntington City-Township Library, and only a few from the end of the 19th century have been lost.) After the paper and the response, each of the other members provides a short commentary of his own. There are no refreshments, with two exceptions: Every member receives an apple as he leaves the September meeting; and the May meeting takes the form of a dinner, which wives are invited to attend.
The meetings are hosted at members’ houses, and the location rotates through the entire membership. The preparation and presentation of papers, too, is on a strict rotation, starting with the most senior member and moving consecutively to the next in line. When the club membership is at its maximum, a new member like myself may wait two years or more to deliver his first paper (though he may be called on at any time to prepare a response, as I was for the May meeting). But from his first meeting, each member is a full and active participant, through his required short commentary on the paper and the response.
The membership is as diverse as you can get when drawing from the pool of males in a Midwestern town that is 96 percent white. From civic leaders to businessmen to academics to blue-collar workers, the members are distinguished only by their seniority. There are disagreements, but no arguments and no appeals to one’s own authority; meetings are, in millennial parlance, “safe spaces,” or, in the language of an earlier age, civilized conversations.
I have attended every meeting of the Cosmopolitan Club this year, with the exception of the one at which I was voted into membership. The papers have spanned a variety of topics, but a common theme has emerged: the destruction of conversation in recent years, and the role that technology has played in that decline.
I have found little to disagree with in the musings of my fellow members, all of whom acknowledge the manifold blessings and the even greater curses that technology has visited upon 21st-century America. The art of conversation is dying; the technology behind the social media that draws us closer, in some sense, to people across the country or around the world is isolating us from our own neighbors.
Of course, it is beyond trite these days to point out that the same was true of television and of radio. Of the “communications technologies” of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, only the telephone may, on balance, have fostered community more than it destroyed it. Yet the era of the telephone passed with the advent of the iPhone in 2007. Since then, phones have been used less and less for voice communications and more and more for the asynchronous transfer of data.
But here we have put our finger on the problem: The “asynchronous transfer of data” is just a clinical way of saying “communication without conversation.” And while the telephone does allow for conversation, even that conversation is stunted, because body language and the ability to interrupt without talking over your interlocutor are missing from conversations held on the phone.
True conversation is synchronous, a face-to-face dialogue, in a way that electronic communications can never really be. (Even video calls today suffer from latency that changes the dynamic of a conversation in subtle but important ways.) So why, even though we all carry around phones in our pockets, do we prefer asynchronous communication, to the point where coworkers are more likely to email or to use a chat program like Slack than to talk to one another face to face?
We can come up with dozens of excuses about the efficiency of asynchronous communications and the benefits of documenting discussions in text form, but the reality, it seems to me, is much simpler: We save conversation for matters of importance, and most of what we spend our time communicating these days is of little to no importance (though, as I will discuss next month, perhaps not for the reasons we might think). And deep down, we recognize that reality, even as we prattle on about the Information Age and the ease of communications, and how lucky we are to live in a time when we can think of so little to say to our neighbor when we see him across the driveway, yet so much to tell our several thousand “friends” across the country and around the world who aren’t talking to their neighbors, either.
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