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.

4 thoughts on “Against Global Communication

  1. Meaningful encounter? I have them a lot, being one of the few who don’t own a mobile phone and doesn’t do Facebook. If I want something I have to go to a person physically and ask for it. You never know then where a conversation may take you….

  2. I lost my cell phone a few weeks ago and am debating on whether or not to replace it. To be connected to the world is good if you are a doctor on call or emergency worker but do I really need to know where my neice is having coffee this morning half way around the world? Meaningful conversation is done face to face, where you can see the persons eyes and body language. Twitter is not communicating, it is merely moving electrons around the world.

  3. I take an internet sabbath on Sunday each week, and I’ve noticed how conditioned I am to reaching in my pocket for stimulation whenever there’s a moment when I’m not being actively engaged by someone or something. (I’ve heard such moments referred to as “dead time,” but the moments are no more dead or alive than any others.)
    Honestly, as I get more and more frustrated with the manufactured busyness of modern life (mine, anyway), I realize how much of it seems built to make ourselves seem important (to both ourselves and others). The way words are appropriated only enforces this. Just posting a picture of your breakfast online isn’t “sharing” it. You can’t become “friends” with someone, in the way the word implies, simply by clicking a button below their profile picture. Yet we can talk about sharing breakfast with our friends when we eat a bowl of cold cereal alone, swiping and swiping our smartphones while we do so.

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