My father was a college professor for over 40 years. He taught geography at Penn State for the bulk of that time. In his capacity as an academic he had many unique opportunities, some of which had an impact on me. He took a sabbatical to Nigeria when I was in third grade bringing my sister, mother, and I along for the ride. He consulted for the State Department orienting diplomats to aspects of Africa, an area of expertise for him. As a result, we took many trips alongside him to Washington DC where we would visit the museums and monuments while he worked. In the evenings we would experience exotic ethnic foods that weren’t available in our small town in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At one point he did some writing for Encyclopedia Britannica. Given a choice between taking an honorarium or receiving a full set of the Encyclopedia, he chose the latter.
Presented with this monumental series of tomes, I thought about it, but never took the initiative to read the thing cover-to-cover like A. J. Jacobs did. It was certainly convenient in the pre-Internet era to have such a reference at home when working on school projects. I remember it best when a question came up during dinner conversation, I would go to the next room, pull out the appropriate volume, and seek the answer. These days we pull out our phones in a similar fashion. We follow the same maneuver to illustrate stories with photos or videos on our phones. For example, I keep a photograph on my phone of my third grade class photo. As I described above, my third grade was spent in the University of Ife Staff School in Nigeria. This photo shows me and my classmates, all of whom were African. I, the only white kid, stand out comically in the corner. Talking about my time in Africa is fun, but being able to add the illustration to the story enhances it. Recently I got to thinking, is it possible any more to have a conversation that isn’t augmented by a smartphone? Hmm, augmented conversation, that’s a concept. Over the next couple of days I intentionally tried to converse without looking up anything on my phone. Try it, it is a challenge! I ran the augmented conversation idea past a few friends and decided to explore it. Sadly (to me), I’m not the first person to string together these two words in this context. I found a blog post from 2010 by David Clough titled Augmented conversations: the future is here. In his essay, Clough discusses how as a sceptic about the iPhone, he saw how his friend had used it to augment a conversation and his attitude towards the iPhone was changed. There are also a number of technical papers out there that use the words in a different sense and a start-up with a software tool that seems poised to augment our conversations automatically in real time. I think augmented conversation is here to stay and it may be that somewhere in the not too distant future, we won’t be able to speak to one another effectively without it. Watch yourself over the next week. How many of your conversations are augmented?