Next great human experiment: Talking to one another

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It says something about the direction of our society that we need to organize special events in order to be able to get together and have civilized discussions about the direction of our state, but that is exactly where we find ourselves.

While we don’t take the position that advancements in technology are negative on the whole, it would be difficult to argue that these changes haven’t, at the very least, affected our sociability as human beings.

With nearly 2 billion people signed up to Facebook, many millions more on other social media sites and popular content aggregate, discussion-based websites like Reddit, we have entered an unprecedented time in human history where in many cases the majority of contact between other people comes in an online format – with the actual participants sometimes on the other side of the globe.

While such instant and unbridled connectivity has made it possible to speak to long-lost family members, keep in touch when kids go abroad in college and organize meetings and events like never before, studies are beginning to show how our increased connectivity online has actually led to a decreasing connectivity in day-to-day, in-person interactions simultaneously.

We can all relate to a situation where we have ignored someone in the very same room while we glue ourselves to a screen – reading something or talking to someone remotely that we deem more interesting than a conversation with someone in the same place and time. The implications of this societal shift are still being analyzed by sociologists, and likely will be for years to come.

Enter the Rhode Island Foundation, which has been cognizant of this trend, especially as it relates to people being able to voice concerns about the direction we find ourselves heading in Rhode Island.

Sure, anybody who operates a Facebook page will have no trouble finding people who are ready to deliver a charged statement that decries a politician, or a policy, or in general despises everything about a certain topic regardless of what an article actually says. This, the Rhode Island Foundation believes, is not the type of dialogue that is helpful in trying to forge a path forward towards a better tomorrow.

And so the Rhode Island Foundation has organized a series of 20 person-to-person conversations throughout the state where people can get together over dinner and discuss issues of the most importance to them. It is not a debate, or a Facebook post style of dialogue where you can shout what you believe and log out. People will be faced with differing beliefs, and they will hopefully learn from them.

The only way that this country was able to form and thrive was by engaging in meaningful dialogue. More often than not, people came to a table with widely varying ideas on what the proper solutions to problems were, and yet by the end of their negotiations they were able to leave with a compromise – something that resembled a little bit of each of their arguments, blended with a little give and take from either side.

Nowadays it is far too common to see people closed off to the very notion that they could be misled or incorrect in their judgment or assessment of an issue in the world. This closed-mindedness is what causes gridlocks at every level of American interaction today – from the dinner table where a father kicks his own child out for not adhering to his beliefs, to the halls of Congress, where representatives vote solely based on party lines and compromise has been eschewed as a sign of weakness.

Through these discussions, the Rhode Island Foundation hopes to find common ground, common complaints about what must be done better in the state and common areas of praise in which the state is doing well. There will be no speeches by politicians or a restriction on what you are allowed to say. It is not a platform for debate, but rather a platform to be heard.

Once the voices are tallied in surveys, the foundation hopes to be able to glean some meaning from the discussion, hopefully to help policy-makers create more informed legislation about what people actually want, and what actually needs to be fixed or changed within the Ocean State.

The only way that this experiment – as it must be un-ironically called in today’s social media landscape – in human interaction will succeed is if people buy in and show up, and allow themselves to sit and break bread with a stranger as they discuss things that matter most to them.

If we can no longer come to the table with people we disagree with and leave with a better understand, and a better appreciation of our peers, no amount of virtual connectivity will save us from our impending solitude.

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