We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion
“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.”
By Maria Popova
Recently, while packing to move, I came upon a stack of letters from my Bulgarian grandmother. During my time in college, we wrote each other long, beautiful letters about once a month. Then she discovered the internet. The letters became emails and, invariably, their nature changed. The slow mutual beholding of sentiment and feeling that co-respondence implies became the quick mutual reaction to information under the pressure of immediacy, which often bled into the banal — daily errands, travel plans, the weather.
As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person. Each appears to be a dormant potentiality, beckoned forth by the respective medium of expression — something that makes it hard not to notice, and hard not to worry about, how such shifts in medium might shape what parts of ourselves we manifest, which in turn add up to the sum total of our personal identity.
The many dimensions of this question are what Rebecca Solnit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, explores in a spectacular essay titled “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library) — the superb nonfiction collection that gave us Solnit on what our dream homes reveal about our interior lives.
With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s famous proclamation that “on or around December 1910, human character changed,” regarding the arrival of Modernism, Solnit writes:
On or around June 1995, human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.
Perhaps each generation broods over how the disruption technologies of its time are taking civilization down — Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned the newspaper itself as a worrisome distraction and one twelfth-century Zen monk thought the same of books — but Solnit’s point is far from that familiar techno-dystopian refrain. Rather, she contemplates the subtler and more insidious effects of our communication technologies on the human psyche — the shredding of the very fabric of time, which blankets our daily lives and dictates their rhythm:
Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.
The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.
Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:
Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.
While she acknowledges that a great many benefits have come from our modern communication technologies, Solnit considers their cost:
Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
Reflecting on witnessing an all too familiar vignette — a group of young people waiting to be seated together at a restaurant, each staring into her or his phone instead of conversing with one another — Solnit writes:
It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.
In a lament evocative of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that the sense of missing out, however psychologically discomfiting, is essential to a full life, Solnit observes:
A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.
She considers the sense of loss, nebulous in its precise object but undeniably palpable, that many of us feel in bearing witness to and partaking in this profound shift in the human experience:
I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too — it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.
It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.
With an eye to the particular atrocity of interruption that was Google Glass — an atrocity that has since perished after metastasizing into too uncomfortable a caricature of our modern malady of productivity-guised flight from presence — Solnit writes:
I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?
I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up or someone’s trying to schedule me for a project or a drink is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning, and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.
Nearly seven decades after Henry Beston’s magnificent manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning the art of presence, Solnit wonders when the uprising will come — against the part of ourselves too easily lured by the promise of efficiency at the expense of aliveness, and against the corporations exploitively perfecting the allure of such seductive illusions. Looking to the groundswell of craftsmanship and the maker movement — gardening, knitting, and the general surge of interest in making things by hand via traditional methods — she considers how this shift might help us reclaim our sense of time:
It is a slow-everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting — but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time.
Getting out of [the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world] is about slowness and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labor practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labor. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.
The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with how Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter-writing can make email more civil, then revisit Solnit on how walking vitalizes the meanderings of the mind, what reading does for the human spirit, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.