Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Social Networks and General Speech

We invest a lot of time and money into making communication faster, and our communication gadgets fancier. I don't think this is a bad thing at all, but I am also not convinced its is wholly a good thing either. I get text messages and e-mails sent to a device I carry in my pocket, a fact that continues to ever so slightly blow my mind. The internet and smartphones certainly improve people's efficiency and productive capacity.
But it also provides more opportunities to share things that aren't necessarily 'ready' for sharing, or weren't really meant to be shared in the first place. I continually resist the urge to share the latest cute cat picture on Facebook because, well, they're are enough cute cats all over the internet. Private thoughts tend to be best left to private places, and I think we're still working on what is private as participants in this developing world of social media.

Near the end of chapter 13, Vonnegut creates an extended section of Kilgore Trout fiction[1], which describes something remarkably similar to our current trajectory. In the fictional universe of Trout's novel, people from earth can gain steady work across the galaxy as "language teachers". Why? Well:
The reason creatures wanted to use language instead of mental telepathy was that they found out they could get so much more done with language. Language made them so much more active. Mental telepathy, with everybody constantly telling everybody everything, produced a sort of generalized indifference to all information. But language, with its slow, narrow meanings, made it possible to think about one thing at a time—to start thinking in terms of projects. (198 emphasis mine - JMG)
Some of you may remember an essay I wrote about Arendt's The Human Condition, in which I probed some of Arednt's ideas of 'the public sphere'. Arednt was specific on how speaking or thinking the public sphere entailed of shaping one's thoughts for public consumption, and more specifically;
[...] that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity (50 emphasis mine - JMG) 
Now, I want to make a few qualifications here; Arendt is talking about publicly available communications (in a political context). Vonnegut/Trout is envisioning an existence with universal mental telepathy, where all thoughts are by definition public. While I don't think we're anywhere close a grim future where we're all plugged into each other, a la The Matrix, but more and more communication tools are in the business of encouraging personal disclosure (e.g. Facebook, twitter). We are certainly entering a period of redefinition of what thoughts are acceptably public or private, and I do think that Vonnegut's imagination should serve as a cautionary example of unfettered exchange.

[1] Vonnegut's use of science fiction within his own fiction reminds me of Alan Moore's "Tales of the Black Freighter" within Watchmen.

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