Sherry Turkle wrote in article in the New York Times a while ago called The Flight from Conversation. I came across it today, over two years since it was released, through a BBC news article discovered through Twitter. It’s interesting, this incalculable quality of persistence that some (but not all) digital content has. But I digress – that’s a topic for another day.
Today, the topic is conversation. Now, more than ever in my life, I notice a dearth of conversation. It’s true that my pool of colleagues has shrunk to practically nil, and certainly none that I see daily; that I’ve moved city twice in the last two years, so don’t have the routine contact with my friends or family that I once had; and that I no longer have strong ties to networks of like-minded people. Throughout this all, my engagement with social media has grown enormously. Turkle links our waning appetite for conversation to our growing connectedness through networked devices. She suggests that these devices make us think we will always be heard, we can put our attention where we want it to be and that we’ll never be alone. My device makes me think otherwise.
We will always be heard
It simply isn’t true. There are estimated to be a billion registered Twitter users, with 100 million people active each day on the social platform. That’s a lot of voices shouting into the ether. Even shrinking this to a human level, the average number of followers for a user is 208*. That’s a lot of people to keep track of, and the idea of ‘following’ is perhaps a misnomer in this sense, because it’s nigh on impossible. Twitter is more closely tied to time that it is to people: it’s about instant gratification – or not. I log on, and I can see who is broadcasting their few characters of news right now. It’s incredibly likely that some proportion of my followers are online at the same moment I send a tweet, but that’s no guarantee of being heard – my tweet pops up into their constantly updated timeline, they might skim over it, they might read it, they might even be interested enough to engage with it (and that says nothing of the frivolous, impulsive or ridiculous tweets that we put out there purely because we feel liberated to act in the moment). But even so, I think it’s a stretch to equate this with ‘being heard’, never mind always being heard. The thing is, listening is different to reading. When we speak, we have much more than words at our disposal, whether we are in complete control of out tools or not. Text is an incredibly basic tool (that’s why, in my opinion, great writing is nothing without a reader), *even* when we embellish it and _hope_ to get our meaning across. Text, unfortunately, can’t really carry a conversation, because it doesn’t do a good enough job of carrying meaning**. The textual exchange is always crude, but that’s not to denigrate its uses, nor its value.
We can put our attention where we want it to be
With the rise of cloud storage and the proliferation of networked spaces comes the idea that we can tap into whatever we need wherever we are. But that notion belies the fact that physicality – environment, posture, materials to hand – has a massive impact on our ability to concentrate, process and create. The reality is that space isn’t neutral, that your immediate surroundings have a considerable bearing on what you do and how, and that means that shifting attention from the here and now to the there and then (whatever that may be) requires an enormous effort to foreground what is remote, and distance what is proximate. I can’t even begin to imagine the damage we do to our perceptive abilities by not being present, to say nothing at all about the feeling of being out of place.
We never have to be alone
Just seeing these six words in this order makes my skin crawl. Solitude is a commodity in short supply, and one that is increasingly threatened by a steady rise in birth rate and population density. But being alone isn’t achieved, or borne, simply by avoiding sharing physical space with others. We can be alone in a crowd.
It is my very strong feeling that part of the human condition is solitude, because nobody can truly share their experience of the world with anybody else. We are too complex, our responses and proclivities too hard to accurately define, and our interpretations – of the world, of words, of others – are profoundly diverse. That, I think, is to be celebrated, even as it is the source of considerable pain and anguish. But that’s why we don’t just have to be alone, but we need to be alone. We need to recognise that we are ultimately singular creatures: we need to learn to make room for ourselves; to embrace moments of solitude and isolation; and to understand when being in company prohibits our own development.
I’m yet to understand why my fundamental mistrust of Twitter gives way to a habitual reliance on it, but probably the day I work it out is the day I leave it behind. Twitter offers a novel mode of connection, and is the most ‘conversational’ of all the social platforms I’ve tried, yet both connection and conversation are illusory: the connection, being a matter of convenience and brevity, is entirely fickle; the conversation lacks depth and its overt reciprocity makes it stilted and awkward. And yet, when real conversation is hard to come by, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that what Twitter provides is deep and meaningful.
*All these figures from here.
** This is why, I think, the humble letter is always cast as the receptacle for frustrated romantic love – it can never replace the presence of the lover, nor hold a conversation between a pair, and is therefore a conduit for longing and a space for declarations. It is, of course, perfect for things that one wouldn’t be able to find words for in person…