The Dark Mountain Blog

Against Global Communication

As the lazier half of the Dark Mountain team, when it comes to blogging, I’m delighted to see the richness of the conversations developing in recent comment threads – and the mixture of voices coming into dialogue.

I was particularly struck by the discussions following from Paul’s post about high-speed rail – and by the picture painted in Dan’s most recent comment:

I wonder if we’ve been set up – just at the moment where global communication might allow us to sees ourselves in enough clarity to realise our connection to each other, everything collapses and that vision disappears, leaving us all as isolated as ever.

It’s that last phrase that gets me – “leaving us all as isolated as ever.”

My mobile phone is now hooked up to email which keeps me connected every waking hour, unless I let the battery run out or exercise self-discipline by switching it off. I am mildly addicted to this kind of connection, and yet I also know how much good it does me to disconnect for a few days. I suffer regularly from overload at the sheer volume of unanswered messages in my inbox, even as I love the way that these technologies allow me to organise lightly with others and achieve things that a decade ago would have taken lumbering institutional structures. (Although I wonder about the newer, huger structures without which my internet connection wouldn’t exist.)

I can’t be “globally connected”. To connect to even a fraction of the 7 billion people on this planet is inconceivable. I’m lucky if I can keep up meaningful friendships of the week-in, week-out sort with more than a dozen or so people. I’m very lucky that, despite living in one of the world’s busiest cities, I find myself in a neighbourhood and with a role which means that most days I meet dozens of people I know by name and have time to talk to, besides my immediate colleagues.

Part of me wants to resist the whole language of “communication” applied to me as if I were a node in an information network. Ivan Illich used to react passionately against this language, telling a questioner: “I have absolutely no desire to communicate with you. You may not interface with me, nor do I wish to be downloaded by you. I should very much like to talk to you, to stare at the tip of your nose, to embrace you. But to communicate – for that I have no desire.”

How many meaningful encounters do you have a day? How does that compare to people’s experience in other times and places?

What do I mean by a meaningful encounter? One which is enjoyed for what it is, rather than as a means to anything – or one whose practical purpose comes embedded in a ritual or a playfulness which slows you down, which is inefficient from the point of view of that purpose, which reminds you that you are here now, wherever you might be going.

I don’t buy this religion of connectivity, this worship of the global. No one has persuaded me that we have all been “isolated” for ever, or that there is less isolation in the world today than there has ever been. These ways of thinking are widespread and influential, but historically very recent. I doubt they will be much help in navigating the years ahead.

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