Note — Mar 28, 2021

Impossible Silences

Superb essay by L. M. Sacasas at The Convivial Society, where he attaches a number of Ivan Illich’s ideas. He’s considering silence as a commons, what that might mean, and how in-person silence might differ from online silence. This is very much a “read the whole thing” case but to give you an idea, the conclusion is basically that silence between people together can happen in multiple manners, mean different things, leave time to think, to consider, and can mean something all on its own. Online, we have none of that. Sure, you can decide to not say anything, but it’s definitely not the same thing as a considered silence person-to-person. The current thinking, that by communicating online we are having true human exchanges, is a big part of the problems we are currently facing in online public spaces.

I’d add that, of course the internet gives us access to many more people, sometimes finding friends and tribes we wouldn’t otherwise meet, but both the incompleteness of online communication and the access to more diversity can exist at the same time.

Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication. […]

The ostensible promise of social media was that anyone’s voice could now be heard. Whether anyone would be listening has turned out to be another matter altogether, as would be the society-wide consequences. […]

“Just as the commons of space are vulnerable and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic,” Illich went on to argue, “so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.” […]

[T]he temptation to be resisted, if I may put it that way, is that of reducing human interaction to a matter of information transfer, something that can be readily transacted without remainder through technological mean. This is the message of the medium, in McLuhanist terms: that, becoming accustomed to electronic or digitized forms of communication, I forget all that is involved in being understood by another and which cannot be encoded in symbolic form.