Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.
Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?
These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:
“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”
Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.
Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.
On the shredding of the fabric of time
Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:
“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.
The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.
Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:
“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”
But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.
It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:
“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”
A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.
But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”
Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:
“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”
And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.
Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”
“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”
When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.
Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:
“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”
The context of reality: straight outta context
The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.
Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”
Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.
To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.
As Beston writes, this may begin outside:
“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”
So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.