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Perhaps to a greater degree than ever before, we are tempted to stay current with the unceasing stream of information inundating us from countless sources. Never before have we had access to so much information and rarely has it seemed so important for us to remain well-informed. The imperative to stay-informed is driven, in part, by the novelty of our situation and the older ideals of democratic citizenship. Unfortunately, the means by which we now seek to stay well-informed may defeat these very ideals by undermining our capacity to think.
In times like these, social media demands something of us, but it is not thought. It demands a reaction, one that is swift, emotionally charged, and in keeping with the affective tenor of the platform. In many respects, this entails not only an absence of thought but conditions that are overtly hostile to thought.
Even apart from crisis, controversies, and tragedies, however, the effect of our digital media ecosystems is consistent: the focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, and the future does not come into play. Our time is now, our place is everywhere. Of course, social media has only heightened a tendency critics have noted since at least Kierkegaard’s time. To be well-informed—meaning up with current events—can undermine the possibility of serious thinking, mature emotional responses, sound judgment, and wise action.
It is important to note, however, that this is not merely a problem of information overload. If it were only information we were dealing with, then we might be better able to recognize the nature of the problem and correct it. It is also an emotional overload problem. It is the emotional register of digital media that accounts for the Pavlovian alacrity with which we attend to our devices and the information flows for which they are a portal. These devices and platforms, then, become, in effect, Skinner boxes we willingly inhabit that condition our cognitive and emotional lives. Twitter says “feel this,” we say “how intensely?” Social media never invites us to step away, to think and reflect, to remain silent, to refuse a response for now or even indefinitely.
Under these circumstances, there is no place for thought.
For the sake of the world, thought must, at least for a time, take leave of the world, especially the world mediated to us by social media. We must, in other words, by deliberate action, make a place for thought.
Hannah Arendt understood that an incapacity to think was a serious threat to our society. Arendt believed that thinking was somehow intimately related to our moral judgment and that the inability to think was a gateway to grave evils. Of course, it was a particular kind of thinking that Arendt had in mind—thinking, one might say, for thinking’s sake. Or, thinking that was not simply a variety of problem solving.
Jennifer Stitt, for example, has drawn on Arendt to argue for the importance of solitude for thought and thought for conscience and conscience for politics. As Stitt notes, Arendt believed that “living together with others begins with living together with oneself.” Here is how Stitt concluded her reflections:
But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life.
Solitude, then, is at least one practice that can help create a place for thought. Paradoxically, in a connected world it is challenging to find either solitude or companionship. If we submit to a regime of constant connectivity, we end up with hybrid versions of both, versions which fail to yield the full satisfactions of either.
We would do well to consider, too, W. H. Auden’s admonition about the desire for knowledge. “We are quite prepared to admit,” Auden wrote,
that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.
Crazy or immoral as it may strike modern ears, it may be one of the most important truths we need to navigate the torrents of information threatening to overwhelm us and navigate these torrents wisely and faithfully.
Study Center Resources
In next week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 26-28 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once we complete the Inferno in this month, we will begin Purgatorio after a couple of weeks off.
Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.
— Joshua Hochschild on a posthumously published work by Walker Percy on significance of language.
Percy the philosopher helps us understand the perversity of imagining human life without language. The same insights may also help explain why his scholarly philosophy book didn’t find a publisher, and why podcasts are more popular than philosophy classes. Even if you could mainline meaning and argument, they are more natural, significant, and joyfully fulfilling shared by the storyteller or poet. Percy the poet knew that communion isn’t “sentimental”; it is our distinctive mode of being. The lecture-hall and library are more likely to become obsolete than the campfire.
— Jay Tolson reviews a new book about the turn of the 20th century French thinker, Charles Péguy:
Péguy believed that advocates of metaphysical hegemony on both the left and the right were foes of the liberal arts that were indispensable to republican democracy. Joined invisibly in their shared immanentism, these hegemonists embodied the deep intolerance of late modernity—and therefore were to be exposed and resisted for what they so dangerously espoused. Call it one of the great tragedies of modernity that the warnings of this clear and prophetic voice were lost not just to his time but to the century that has since unfolded.
— Mark Boyle on what he learned living without the conveniences of many modern technologies:
I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship, and community, and not just the things that pass for them. Instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.