Sunday, January 11, 2015

Far From the Maddening Crowds



"We live in an age of chattering masses,"  writes librarian Mark Herring of Dacus Library, Winthrop University, in the library journal Against the Grain (Feb 2014 v26,1).  "Everybody talks to everybody else," but nobody is listening, he says. Well, I listened. I also asked his permission to extensively quote his article, and then give my hopefully well reasoned response to it. Here it is. For the remainder of this column, anything in italics are his words.
                In our hyper-connected age, everybody talks to everybody else, with all sorts of entertaining news . . . we 'blow up' the Twitterverse with our claptrap that masquerades as real conversations and human connections. Essentially we are talking to ourselves because no one is really listening.
                Why is no  one listening?  Is it because we're too enamored of our own opinions?  On the 'nets we are free to spout our opinion, often behind a protective layer of anonymity. This gives the added bonus of not having anyone get in our faces about what we've said. There's no consequences to commenting or re-tweeting. It might be, however, that we are instead too insecure in our opinions so that we must shout them louder than everyone else, lest we hear a contrary view that might upset our world. 
                We talk about nothing because to talk about something requires that we stop and think, read, study and consider. If we do that, we might miss something else as it goes zooming by. Our culture, particularly online culture thrives on the new and on things happening fast. This is not in itself new; St Luke notes in the Acts of the Apostles (17:21) that the Athenians spent all their time telling or hearing some new thing. The difference is that today the new thing arrives much more quickly. If we stop to think about any of it, several other things will have passed us by.
                We enjoy Twitter nitwits like Anthony Weiner . . . In many ways people like this deserve what they get, courtesy of the lightning rod we call the Internet.
              Nitwits like Weiner are ubiquitous - it is just that they now have a wider forum in which to display nitwittery. Lack of discretion and foolishness is also a part of the fallen human condition, which is to say it's not new either. The 'nets just make them visible to more people, for a brief period.
             The chattering masses may just want to be heard, to be recognized, to have someone validate their existence. I regretfully note that I check my page counts more than once a week. I am not immune to the lure of Internet fame. It is sad to think that counting 'likes'  or re-tweets may be the new Man's Search for Meaning. Why should we accept this "claptrap that masquerades as real conversations and human connections"? We need conversations and connections, but we simply will not find them on Twitter.  Twitter, by the way, is not the Internet. One can find a form of community online, if one looks for smaller venues that the Twitterverse - forums and blogs and discussion boards that have a common theme, whether hobbies or beliefs or what have you. I have had many informative and sometimes challenging conversations with others online who share my interests. This is still not the same thing as my friends with whom I play games or worship or do my work, but it is not nothing. It cannot however substitute for the real thing.
                It is an unfortunate truth that we often end up with the results that we fear because of something we did – especially when we are afraid or insecure – which is very common for the post-modern chattering masses.  We want to be heard, but don't listen. Listening is the first step to being heard: if you want others to listen to you, start by listening to them. By shouting (or TYPING IN ALL CAPS) we try to force others to listen to us, but it doesn't work. It may even encourage louder shouting on their part, to get you to listen to them.
                Twits, like Weiner and others, try to get our attention by being outrageous, but how long will it be before his stupidity is so commonplace as to no longer be shocking?  Then we will experience a new depth of outrageous stupidity, and another, and another. We deaden our sensibilities by continuing to absorb the barrage of outrageousness and ridiculousness, and eventually nothing is shocking. We can lose our ability to be shocked, and in the process, our ability to feel anything. 
          “This isn’t so much a reading problem – though it certainly is that - as it is a cultural shift to react, not think, to post, never reflect, to chatter and not shut up for even a second . . . for this we are giving up newspapers, personal communications, books, libraries and Lord only knows what else!?”  I don't Tweet, but I do read and write blogs. The ones I read most often are focused on specific activities - like librarianship, or writing, or my other job, sci-fi role-playing. Of the blogs that I read, I can say that I rarely come across a post that, whether short or long, isn't thought out and expressed with clarity. Often I find myself thinking, "now why didn't I write that?" or "I could write something about that myself". 
                I find these things that Mr. Herring says sad, rather than maddening. The Internet is a very large pond indeed, and we are very small fish. This in itself is difficult for most people (even me) to accept. Shout as we might, it's not going to make a lasting impression. With so many people making ripples on the pond, whatever ripples I may make will be swamped and broken up almost immediately.
                Europeans have long thought of Americans as shallow, frivolous and a bit too silly. But are we a bit too superficial for our own good?  Yes, of course we are. The Europeans look at us and think “Been there, done that” as if their jaded decadence is somehow better than the mess we've got. And of course, it is not like the Internet only exists in America. There are plenty of Euro-nitwits out there cluttering the Twitterverse, I'm sure.
                Andy Warhol supposedly promised everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. What are we supposed to do when the fifteen minutes are up and we get washed back into obscurity? Unplug. Get off the 'nets and go have a conversation with someone face to face. Accept our (relative) obscurity. We are not obscure to God. He made us to be in relationship with Him and with each other – in person, not as text on a screen. The 'nets are nice for information, weather reports and funny cat videos. But it is not where we were meant to live. 
                The irony is not lost on me that I have suggested that people unplug and spend less time online – on a social media site. Nor is it lost on me that almost no-one will read this. I must not be shouting loud enough.

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