Against Global Communication

is co-author of the Dark Mountain manifesto and was at the core of the project for a decade. Originally from the northeast of England, he now lives in central Sweden. He co-hosts The Great Humbling podcast and is slowly creating a school called HOME. His new book At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics & All the Other Emergencies is published in February 2023.
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.

  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.

    1. Denis wrote: “Meaningful conversation is done face to face, where you can ‘see’ the persons eyes and body language.” From this I assume you believe blind people never have any meaningful conversation?

      1. Hi David,

        It seems rather doubtful that Denis believes that, doesn’t it?

        There’s an old German expression, “Ich kann Dich gut riechen”, which literally translates as “I can smell you well.” It’s a way of expressing a gut-level experience of another person – it’s the kind of thing you don’t say to someone unless you’ve been through some stuff together – and the sense of smell suggests the role of physical proximity within such experience of one another. But I don’t think the expression should be taken to imply the impossibility of such experience for those who are without a sense of smell.

        But yeah, if you’re saying that it’s easy to take for granted the centrality of the sense of sight – and in particular culturally-specific customs around eye contact – then you’re not wrong. For example, my understanding is that in Australian aboriginal cultures, direct eye contact is generally experienced as rude and disrespectful.


  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.

    1. Are you using high-tech communication to order other people to disconnect from their high-tech communication to better their own lives? Hmm. Sounds sort of dictatorial.

      1. O Onedrous One,

        Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment on this old post. Got to say, though, I can’t see that either Shirley or myself is “ordering” anyone to do anything.


  4. Unless you need it for business purposes disconnect your mobile from your email. And turn it off or don’t answer it immediately when you are relaxing.

    Otherwise I agree with everything you said.

  5. Saw this wonderful blog just today! I am deeply impressed. Though I totally agree that all of us are getting more and more isolated in one way or the other, I want to tell you how some of the articles I read in the Dark Mountain Blog touched me and gave me answers to some of the most troubling questions I have been struggling with. I am 65 years old and have spent most of my life working for the conservation of rainforests (in the Western Ghat Mountains of Kerala, India) and also talking to children and youth sharing my pain and hope, my questions and practical solutions. As I am most of the time in wilderness or tribal areas without even electricity, it is no problem for me to disconnect and keep my peace intact. But for the human being in me to keep my hope and faith alive, I sometimes need human connectivity…especially with the youth and children, women and concerned people. So I try to somehow link and interlink, network and work-net…always knowing that humans can live without technological crutches, never without the foundations of life support systems and the Web of Life….
    All appreciation for the artistic and deeply spiritual and transformative quality of this Blog.

  6. It was heartening to read a few sincere comments here about communication, using mobile or cell phones. Plus their shadowy attendant partners, the phenomena we know as ‘Facebook,’ ‘Twitter,’ etc. Could it be that at long last some searching questions are actually being asked?

    Personally I don’t find it particularly astonishing that the ‘digital revolution’ has been universally welcomed. After all that is what religious conspiracies exist in order to achieve. I mean the widest possible acceptance of a creed based on faith rather than reason.

    But what has really amazed me is the almost total lack of examination of the palpable symptoms of the digital revolution on the users. Their habits, their modes of thought, their minds, and their lives. The subcultures and societies they’re part of, their own environment, and the wider global environment.

    Are we all so convinced that everything associated with digital technology is of such transcending value that we can’t even be bothered to investigate its effects?

    In former phases of civilisation unpalatable questions were asked by individuals and groups searching after what they believed to be the truth. Our civilisation on the other hand is notable for turning a blind eye to a total transformation in people’s behaviours and life-styles. Even when these changes may well be highly damaging and destructive.

    Who is going to be the first to investigate, question, and if necessary repudiate what has been going on?

    1. Who is going to be the first to tell psuedo-philosophical “intellectuals” who think they have the answers to all life’s “mysteries” and “questions” to start ANSWERING their own questions before worrying about everyone else? In short, to mind their own business and live their own lives? I am. Mind your own business and live your own lives. If you use “snail mail”, telegraph or telephone, text messages or online discussion forums to communicate, you have no leg to stand on in a “debate” about how anyone else should communicate and no right to give anyone orders or even suggestions on what they should do to find the peace and happiness YOU clearly have NOT found if YOU think the world is so FUCKED.

  7. I’d love to leave an intelligent and insightful comment, and I feel some pressure to do so as both a linguist and someone newly alerted to Dark Mountain but who lives far away in Japan and thus unable to attend physical events and get to know people in person. However, I’d be afraid that I was just ‘communicating’ in order to make myself heard. I don’t think that would be a very meaningful encounter, so I will just leave a little silly comment here and hope that you know what I mean… Loved this post.


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