David Weinberger
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Are there conversations?

06 March 2000

Business is a conversation, a set of global conversations. Knowledge workers are the people who are paid to have interesting conversations.

Yeah, sure. But do conversations even exist? After all, a conversation really consists of two people mouthing off. Remove the people and there’s nothing left. All that really exists are two people making irregularly shaped air.

Bushwa! That is the same line of thinking that leads people to deny the existence of groups of any sort, from governments to societies to families. The denial of such obvious phenomena is usually caused by two factors. First, you have to be a materialist who thinks the only way to be real is to have some mud and dust in you. Second, you have to have some set of principles so important to you that you are willing to deny the existence of stuff that is a plain as the look on your face.

No, conversations do exist. And the ones worth remembering are those that overpowered the interlocutors, bringing them to say what they had not yet thought.

Cast your thoughts back to the sci fi stories you read as a teen-ager. (Yes, I know it is supposed to be “sf,” and I know Trekkies are supposed to be Star Trek Aficionados and a Democratic senator is supposed to be called a Democrat senator so it won’t sound as if she is especially democratic.) A bad conversation is like “The Beast with Two Heads” that’s always at war with itself. Or it may be like “The Brain Transplant Project,” in which one interlocutor's brain is moved wholesale into another body. But there's another sci fi scenario: two minds magically merge into one über-mind, somehow joining the wisdom of both and the best impulses of each. Now we're talking!

Such conversations are rare. For example, I recently had lunch with seven captains of local industry. Actually, they were lieutenants or maybe in charge of the motor pool, but in any case, they were a lot better dressed than I was. We ate our buffet sandwiches at a rare wooden table, 33 floors up, in a boardroom looking down on the Boston urban seascape. This was supposed to be a social gathering to engage in salon-like talk, ignoring the bits of coleslaw dribbling out the corners of our mouths. We even had a topic: the nature of mistakes. And the conversation was good. Very good.

But only one person really entered into it fully. The rest of us played our usual roles in such affairs. Most of us looked for a way to say something smart, hanging back, listening for openings, hoping that we could grab the floor while our sound bite was still relevant. Me, too. But I also hovered over the conversation looking for places I could inject a joke; you're allowed to cut ahead in the conversational line if you say something funny, particularly if it has absolutely no substance and thus can't hijack the conversation.

But one guy was different. He raised a really juicy example for the rest of us to chew on, so he was one of the focal points. But he actually listened, he didn't say things unless they were responsive, and--mirabile dictu!--he seemed delighted to learn something new. He smiled broadly, he thanked people and pointed out what was important to him about what they'd said; he even took notes. The conversation didn't seem to him to be a competitive sport or an asset that he needed to own.

The best conversations are in fact group minds. They move in unpredictable directions and cover uncharted territory. And they're proof that not only is the whole different than the sum of the parts (which was the original formulation of this cliché, a factoid you can use to make points in a competitive conversations) and not only is the whole more than the sum of the parts, the whole is a heck of a lot more interesting than the sum of the parts.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.