Listening through silences

Social media build layers of distraction around the individual's essence. It is time to tune out
Roger Cohen

RESEARCHING a family memoir, I recently read the magazine of my father's high school in Johannesburg from the year he graduated, 1938. An editorial said: "The stresses set up by the social changes wrought by the advent of technology are straining the structure of civilisation beyond the limits of tolerance." It continued: "The machine has brought men face to face as never before in history. Paris and Berlin are closer today than neighbouring villages were in the Middle Ages. In one sense distance has been annihilated. We speed on the wings of the wind and carry in our hands weapons more dreadful than the lightning."

This was written more than a half-century before the popularisation of the internet. It is important to cut off from time to time not least because we are not the first humans to believe the world has sped up and hyperconnected to a point where distance has been eliminated. Too often we confuse activity and movement with accomplishment and fulfilment. More may be gained through a pause. One of life's great riddles is determining what changes and what does not. Di Lampedusa famously observed that, "For things to remain the same, everything must change."

We tend to overstate what has changed. The fundamental instincts and urges of our natures remain constant. Social media did not invent the need to be loved or the fear of being unloved. They just revealed them in new ways. I wrote last week about how oversharing and status anxiety, two great scourges of the modern world, are turning human beings into crazed dogs chasing their tails.

I started out in journalism at a news agency. Twitter is like a wire service on steroids where you can cherry-pick input from the smartest people you know. It is a feast where you generally get to choose what is on the table and where you do not have to sit through some interminable speech over dessert. It is also a battering ram pointed at the closed systems that turned that old 20th century into hell for so many. But like Facebook, Twitter can be addictive in ways that may provide brief solace but militate against respect of our deeper natures. There is too much noise, too little silence. To share, that once beautiful verb, has become an awful emotional splurge.

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