The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 3: 2021: A Conversational Odyssey!


The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 3: 2021: A Conversational Odyssey!

Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

This month has mostly consisted of August, and as everyone knows nothing much happens in August (apart from going on holiday). But never the less Conversation Man has been busy burning his brain cells in an attempt to contextualise why what we are doing at SayItNow is the next great evolutionary step for humanity!

In the opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey there’s a well known scene where some ape like early humans discover a mysterious, other worldly, monolith. Which then communicates some kind of insight to the ape-humans, non-verbally, as they subsequently discover the power of tools, chiefly wielding big sticks, thereby setting mankind off on a path towards technological progress. The film then charts the evolution of mankind through ape-men, to humans, to spacemen, to transcendent Angel-Starchild-Supermen. And each time there’s an important moment of evolution the monolith shows up again, as if it’s guiding humanity towards its destiny in a somewhat active fashion.

However, what sets us apart from the rest of intelligent life isn’t in fact the use of tools (apes and ocopti, for example, also use such things) but language. And in a world in which information swirls around us in all manner of different, often quite sophisticated, forms it’s worth remembering the obvious point that language was, and still is, first and foremost, a social, oral, act. And I think it’s fair to say that, for most people most of the time, ‘having a chat’ is still regarded as the most efficient, pleasurable, straight forward way to engage with other people, be that in business or life in general. As while an email, or a text, or what have you, have their uses for conveying information, where anything more intimate, or complex, is involved we still prefer oral, ideally in person, communication.

If language, and its development, is one crucial part of the human story then, arguably, the other is the development and evolution of ‘the portal’. In the sense, somewhat like the monolith, of a physical object which transports us in some fashion into another realm. We are now so entirely surrounded by such portals in our daily lives that they seem pretty mundane- TV, the internet, the radio, smartphones, the cinema, books, pictures, smart speakers, newspapers, adverts etc. But it’s worth remembering that for most of our evolution we hardly had any, other than perhaps a bit of cave painting or wondering at the moon, stars or our reflection in a pond.

One major strand of such portal development is of course the more recent phenomenon of advertising, in its ever proliferating forms. As, over roughly a hundred years, we’ve gone from simple pictures and / or words in a newspaper or on a billboard or sign, to radio and TV adverts, to the increasing variety of on-line and Social Media ads we see today.

But the crucial evolution in all of this is that for most of advertising’s fairly short history all of these portals were one way. I.e. you could look into, or at, the pool, and it would tell you something, but you couldn’t talk back, or interact with it. Its job was thereby to show you a world, and a related product, that you desired, transporting you, internally, into that feeling (with related information). All of which was shattered by the internet when, for the first time ever in the history of everything (or at least advertising), one could now reach into the portal and interact with it, via a click, taking you deeper into it.

The next great leap of humanity’s evolution, in the above sense, is thereby where oral communication and the interactive portal collide. As oral conversation is after all the first, and last, facet of ourselves as social, intelligent, beings. And where portals, and advertising, are concerned we are in the foothills of a revolution whereby (via Conversational-AI) one can not only interact with an advert (in the ‘click’ sense) but one can in effect have a conversation with it.

Over the 20th Century we’ve perhaps been conned into thinking that we’re predominantly visual creatures who just love being glued to screens, sometimes with associated keyboards, mice or touch screens. But the truth is we aren’t. We’d rather be wandering around, or slouching around, chatting to one another whilst perhaps doing other, physical, somewhat social, things, be that in the street, in a cafe, at work, or at home.

A bit like my grandmother, who always used to cook with the radio on, whilst chatting to whoever wandered through the kitchen or was helping her cook. None of which would have worked if she was glued to her I-phone screen or TV, nor indeed if she’d got her head buried in a book. And in fact my aunt is similar, in her kitchen-dining-living room, except that she uses a smart speaker for the radio / music, which means that she sometimes chats to Alexa while cooking, along with the rest of the family if they are around, sometimes for information but often for amusement.

Another example being when I was in a local, as it happens East African, restaurant in North West London recently, randomly, for lunch, on my own, and it was refreshing to see that customers, staff and what seemed to be friends of the owners were all sat down chatting, some of them eating, like a kind of grand living-dining room. With very few of them glued to their I-phone or I-pad, and as I remember a TV in one corner but on silent which no-one was watching, everyone preferring, in the more human style, to chat to each other as people came and went.

I thereby believe, as Conversation Man, that the future isn’t being a screen obsessed couch or Social Media potato. Rather the future is oral (not necessarily the greatest tag line), and thereby conversational, where portals, and advertising, are concerned.

And in the near future rather than fiddling around with endless annoying Apps on little screens we’ll no doubt have an intelligent Conversational-AI-Personal Assistant who’ll seamlessly interact with other such AI-Personal Assistants as we wander around. Whether that be in the home, at work, in the street, in a shop or wherever. Creating one fluid, orally accessed, world which joins the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ into one sphere.

At which point, rather like 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’ll have no more mundane work to do, Conversational-AI-Robots can do pretty much everything tedious for us, and we’ll have taken our possibly final evolutionary step from the early space men that we are now towards being the transcendent Angel-Spacechild-Superpeople that one day we’ll surely become. Or at least in the meantime it’s a lot easier and more in tune with our human natures to order Berocca Boost, or give to charity, via talking to your I-phone than it is fiddling around on an annoying little screen.

Yours, Conversation Man

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at If you missed episodes 1 & 2, you can find them below. See you in episode 4…