Perpetual consciousness and how we abuse abstraction (Reflections on leaving Twitter)
Returning home in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini reflects on the paradigm shift afflicting the southern Italian countryside. He is saddened by new technologies and manufacturing growth which threaten to break his fellow countrymen who lack “the grim seriousness, violent power, and inner alertness to the monstrous that is demanded.” (What social platform does that sound like to you?)
The men who are to replace these countrymen, he says, are Italian urbanites who have mastered abstraction; those who are ready to move beyond small cottages and human wants; those who will embrace the future. Guardini describes abstraction as the innate human curiosity that seeks systems and concepts to scale and replace the individual features of everyday life or vitality.
Guardini says “vitality,” is our “direct encounter with things, from direct grasping and being grasped,” in order to “lay hold to individual things directly and become stuck in them.” When interacting with reality, things are “detected, seen…formed, or enjoyed,” not quantified or abstracted. And as technology grows, so do systems of abstraction at the cost of vitality. Think Wal-Marts at the cost of local grocers or, perhaps, tweets at the cost of verbal human conversation.
The natural result of abstraction, Guardini says, is our lifestyle of consciousness and awareness. When you, the modern man, have finally shed the messiness of dealing with individual people and problems, you must next find some system to maintain awareness of everything. Absent individual parts, you need to build a census to understand the greater whole. More from his Letters from Lake Como (1959):
“Newspapers are a technique of developing awareness. By them we today become aware of what is going on around us and to us and in us. Reporters are present at events to describe and integrate them. Cameras take picture of them. Nothing happens anymore without being noticed. That decisive point is that we accept all this as normal.”
A paragraph later:
“Everywhere, then, we find an attitude in which we not only are and live and act but also know all these things, know the reasons for them, find the relations, and see the inner mechanisms of what takes place. This attitude is indeed basic in every sphere, from the setting of technological goals to immediate living, to recreation and amusements. Consciousness is our attitude, our atmosphere. And it is becoming increasingly so.”
His critique is stunning. Twitter, and social media overall, occupy this role of consciousness in our present day: every sphere, always on, total abstraction. When we seek to understand the world better — during say, an earthquake or hurricane — we log on to build awareness. When we are stuck in rush hour traffic, despite absolute certitude that nothing can change our situation, we log on to build awareness. When we have had a miserable day and want to lash out and strut our sharp wit, we log on to build awareness.
Not only do we believe it is essential to build our own awareness, but it has become necessary to build the awareness of others (lest you be accused of laziness) and, most urgently, “move the conversation,” as is frequently quipped. If only we could generate enough buzz!
Take an example that is impossible to disagree with: “It is great to help a single mother pay for rent, but it would be so much better to make the entire country aware of her plight and help all single mothers pay their rent!” How can you disagree with such an obvious good? Are you heartless?
The abstract nullifies the vital in a beguiling but deadly way. It moves on quickly from a person who could be encountered, loved, served, to a campaign raising awareness of People Like Her. The messy vitality of discovering a single mother’s needs and helping pay her rent can grow one’s charity, experience, and potentially aid more women in need. Meanwhile abstraction of her will only ever distract or serve as an expedient vehicle for other purposes. An exaggeration in either direction diminishes her.
Abstraction fools us into believing that we can all rule, like petty kings, from our mighty laptop thrones. Even worse, we believe that those around us, our serf followers, all share homogenous human qualities that can be remedied by abstract solutions. Twitter, for its part, has coronated many as such with verified blue check marks. If you wonder what features contribute to the filter bubble (the creating of one’s own echo chamber), you need not look further than Guardini’s thesis of consciousness.
Now for my part
Over the past decade I have abandoned most every other medium and Twitter is my last. Starting after college in 2010, I dipped out of talk radio. The Tea Party movement activated a beast that took flags and symbols from (my love) American history with little regard for their meaning. A couple of years later, when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney for a second term, I stopped watching the day-to-day warfare of Fox News; I sold my TV. Come 2014, I joined my first political campaign, deleted Facebook, and weaned myself off of liking. With Facebook went my blog/punditry reading, and after the election I never looked back. Now, a whole decade later, I read books and follow a handful of users on Twitter.
But it’s time to let go. Like Guardini, I see now what novelist Mark Haddon keenly describes as abstraction’s crowding out of beautiful human vitality:
“When reading a novel, watching a TV programme or visiting an exhibition, a part of my mind would be constantly alert for, and quietly fashioning, tweetable material, highlighting the more succinctly packageable aspects of what was in front of me and simplifying the more complex aspects.
I would concoct a mildly clever bon mot, hang on to a thought that would hitherto have blown away like chaff, or notice something so mildly amusing that it was hardly worth sharing with my own family — an unintentionally ribald place-name, a house that looked like Hitler — and tuck it away to share with the world. And if I usually realised in time that the vast majority of these potential tweets were not worth the effort, the automatic mechanism that gathered and shaped them was nevertheless ticking constantly away…
I was, in short, wasting time, energy and emotion. I was engaging with the people and things around me more narrowly, and I was thinking with less freedom.”
But what else? I have spent a great deal of time sharing what I see as the final and most concrete example of why I should leave. However, I would be failing you if I did not at least enumerate several of my other reasons, all of which I have ignored for some time.
- An absolute time suck, both as a focus and as a distraction throughout the day,
- An echo chamber that crowds out diverse thoughts and builds choirs to preach to,
- An unrealistic sample of the American population and electorate, which leads to biased conclusions in discussion,
- Almost entirely entertainment and loses its appeal when topics become overly serious,
- A pitiful tool for maintaining (what Neil Postman calls) a good information-to-action ratio,
- An overstimulating emotional force that few can spiritually combat in any meaningful way,
- A near occasion of sin that often provokes me to privately or publicly scold people who are (or pretend to be) eternally ignorant,
- Entirely incapable of disseminating satire.
- A stage, where the most successful art is honestly the most abusive.
In The Concept of Irony (1841), Kierkegaard tells us that “irony in a strict sense can never set forth a thesis.” This twisting of words, which is the backbone of Twitter, is spiritually vacuous — perchance even nihilist. To set forth an idea is to communicate in earnest and make arguments for one’s cause. To reject any concise structure of understanding is to, in effect, to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” Truly we must see that if Twitter is anything at all, it must be the weapon of sophists.
At the end of his reflection, Haddon jokes that if you want to talk to him ex post Twitter, “come round to dinner sometime,” otherwise he will be “shovel[ing] coal.” In this retort Guardini’s thesis is fully realized and I too am convinced.
To those who follow, I am happy for you to continue. A well-oiled robot will continue to share my articles in quite a few places, including Twitter, and my DM’s will remain open (though I would rather you email). As for my interactions, those will soon cease and I will begin my journey to become but another naive soul in a sea of unawareness.
If you ever want to come sail with me, there’s plenty of work to do.
[Photo credit: Mehmet Geren: https://www.instagram.com/p/BeuetL_gLhQ/ ]