disconnecting and listening

When I took a break from the internet this fall, I wasn’t aiming for a so-called “digital detox,” though it did create an opportunity to think about online presences and social media and how our virtual lives are contrasted with “real life,” offline. Nathan Jurgenson digs into this idea in his essay “The Disconnectionists,” looking at how our digital lives have become normalized yet pathologized at the same time, to the point where people choose to disconnect to try to find their “authentic” selves. 

My time disengaged from social media made it more apparent how life in my circles has become so attached to and enmeshed in various sites that not being active on any of them for a measurable stretch actually made me feel largely invisible, as if swaths of my identity had been stripped away rather than revealed. I filled that space with other tasks and activities, though I’m not sure if they were inherently more genuine. During that time I kept in touch with friends who I already maintained direct contact with, but for many others, I must have seemed to disappear, if my absence was noticeable at all in the constant stream of feeds.

People imply that the internet makes us lazier, but I think it just makes us busier and more efficient, though not automatically more productive. We can keep in touch with more people at the same time by condensing our stories into pieces that can be fit into tweets and status updates or be represented by photos or short videos. It only takes a moment to acknowledge friends through likes or other one-click responses. For many of us, online social lives enable us to keep in touch while creating more time for other activities. 

Often this means more time for work, though since participating in social media often doubles as a professional presence, the line between may be blurred. Mimi Nguyen wrote about this in the context of academic realms in “Against Efficiency Machines,” referring to the participation in social media and blogging for professional development as immaterial labor. She also references Rob Horning’s essay “Experiments in Inertia” where he describes how online presences are “signifiers of the self,” performances in which no one participates solely as an audience since everyone maintains their own performance simultaneously: 

Our consumption of social media, then, is always inflected by potential jealousy for rivals in the medium or by the alertness for techniques or ideas to borrow. This can complicate the hope we have in using social media for creating an appreciated self, an archived identity that has followers who validate it for its particular content. It tends to makes the self merely a set of techniques for self-documentation rather than a matter of what it is documented. (I am real because my social media presence is active, not because of anything I say on social media.)

Earlier he says, “Once, we could convince ourselves we have a self by paying attention to our own interiority — by listening to the voice(s) in our head.” 

Time away from social media may not be more innately authentic, but it could give you room to listen, without distractions. It might allow you to be more authentically productive and perhaps more mindfully connected wherever you interact with others. 

· • ·

Early in December, on one of the frigid days we’ve been having this season, some friends and I trekked to the Cloisters on the last day of Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet” installation. It was the first contemporary piece to be exhibited at the museum of Medieval art that is constructed largely of pieces of European abbeys. In one chapel, forty speakers were positioned in an oval, and each one provided a voice of the motet, as if forty people were standing in an oval singing together. Ideally listeners would enter the room and walk around to get a spatial sense of the piece, but since many of us had procrastinated and many of the others had come back for a last listen, the room was packed. It was almost impossible to move without risking interrupting someone else’s experience. So everyone stood, largely with eyes closed, and just listened. When the voices behind us came in for the first time, we checked over our shoulders — surrounded by so many people, it was easy for the electronics to disappear, to experience the recording as a live performance. 

Photo: Wilson Santiago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo: Wilson Santiago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you were there and you opened your eyes, you would have seen a crowded room of people paused in a collective experience of witnessing an assembly of voices. In a city that is always moving, where it’s hard to escape the noise of all that bustling, a group of people chose to be still, in order to hear better. Depending where you stood, shafts of light might have highlighted certain faces, expressing internal reactions you could reasonably guess at, but there was no running feed, no commentary. Just a congregation of people lost inside their heads, actively listening.

· • ·

Last year I started writing again after many years of typing mostly in small boxes on various web platforms. I thought I would make my first zine in ten years, but while I managed to type a lot of words, I eventually hit a wall and I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to say, though I had bits and pieces that appealed to me. I definitely could have forced myself to put enough words together to publish something, but I knew I was just scratching the surface of undefined ideas. 

Some of this is probably due to the habits of publishing online, which leads to “concentrated bursts of writing,” as Mimi puts it.

After all, the tempo of public attention also calls for continuous blogging or tweeting in order to maintain one’s online presence, and retain relevance. That is, the temporal forms of the blog and tweet are twofold: singular and also serial, the retort and the anticipation of another to follow, and another.

I’ve started thinking about this as the cult of productivity. It’s partially that we feel we need to be churning out work constantly, as if the only way we can define who we are is through continuous action. But this leaves little room for letting new ideas germinate or reconsidering our processes. Coming back to writing this year, I found that while being out of practice made it harder to start again, I wasn’t tied to old habits. While in the past I often wrote with minimal editing, I found myself spending more time reworking pieces, considering not just what I hoped to say but how I hoped to say it.

· • ·

This month I went to a short meditation retreat, a few hours on a Saturday morning, and one of the exercises was the “Who Am I?” meditation. Paired into twos, we took turns answering this question, only saying statements in the form of “I am…”  On my turn to answer, I stumbled up against a question of whether I should define myself by various “temporary” characteristics that came up. Being in some transitional states, I hesitated to define myself by them, which called into question whether any characteristic can really be “permanent.” 

Afterward I caught up with a friend who is an artist. She hasn’t been making new work recently, though she plans to now that she’s created a work schedule for herself that provides her with the time, but she felt guilty about how long she’d been neglecting her work. I shared how I found that getting out of a practice had caused me to rethink how I create and how this might actually provide an opportunity to innovate, to dig deeper. She agreed in feeling like time off was sometimes not just helpful but necessary to gather new ideas.

Later that evening I watched a movie I’d been hanging on to for over a month, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. It’s a strangely lighthearted movie with Anna Karina as Nana, a woman who has left her family to become an actress but instead turns to prostitution to make money. Near the end of the film, she starts talking with a man in a café, yet immediately finds herself at a loss for what to sayThe man (Brice Parain, Godard’s philosophy teacher) tells her a story, he says “just to talk.” Unimpressed and frustrated, she declares, “The more one talks, the less the words mean.” She questions whether we should talk at all. Parain replies by doubting that we can live in silence. “We must think, and for thought we need words. There’s no other way to think.” He describes his “terrible” story as a pointer.

I believe one learns to talk well only when one has renounced life for a time. That’s the price… Speaking is almost a resurrection in relation to life… So, to live in speech one must pass through the death of life without speech... there’s kind of an ascetic rule that stops one from talking well until one sees life with detachment… 

Nana jumps in to say, “But one can’t live everyday life with [detachment].” Parain replies, “We balance, that’s why we pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because it’s the movement of life.”

Perhaps that is the problem with this new world of feeds, in which we need to participate at an unwavering pace: there isn’t really movement in it. Through our constant involvement, we become, in a way, stagnant. We can only find silence if we choose to disconnect entirely, but the medium itself doesn’t allow for any flow between the two. 

Unlike a conversation that can ebb and evolve, when communicating through social media we speak mostly in tiny, simultaneous monologues, hoping for connection. That personal contact is possible, yet often disjointed. As we all post into the stream, it’s unclear who is listening, who is truly engaged.