Constant connectivity and the search for meaning

Sir Francis Bacon is often cited as a possible...

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The SXSWi Festival made me think about the limits of constant connectivity.  By that I do not mean in a technological sense. Connectivity is creating a gap.  The gap is one of meaning.  By that I mean we are connected more and more to the web, with constant updates to our twitter feed, but at the price to our ability to understand and find meaning.  The search for meaning is intrinsic to being human, yet the web seems unable to give it.  The problem is that the internet, connectivity, deprive of us time. What we gain in immediacy we lose in time to reflect.  We are always on and always connected, thus depriving us the time or space to reflect and digest.

In many ways, the demand for content is a search for meaning. Yet, that meaning comes from content, which is better constructed and presented than what is on offer. Moreover, the problem is not simply writing in bite sized chunks or to a specific length or style.  Instead, it has to do with how the content challenges us through its structure as well as what the text says.  What seems to be missing within the web and further and further from the surface of it is content structured to give argument and action.

In reading philosophy, one becomes aware of what Leo Strauss called the argument and action of a dialogue (   As Seth Bernardete, one of his students described, one has to be aware of the structure of the work as much as its text and its context. Yet, in the day of hyper-connectivity, one wonders if there is time for us to consider the argument and the action of internet content.  One may find that it presents its argument and action perfectly because it is ephemeral.   Yet, the surface of the internet contains a deeper concern. Do we have the time, does the internet allow us the time, to undertake what has been described as “slow reading.”  By that I mean more than simply the pace of the reading, but the way we absorb meaning from a text by thinking as we are reading. At the same time, this is not a call of “stop the world, I want to get off”, but rather a call to reflect.  Without time to digest, how can we understand and find meaning?  To be sure, some works are not written to be digested but rather only to be tasted.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Sir Francis Bacon

Yet, the time we spend “tasting” or “skimming” reduces or eliminates the time for thinking through the idea contained within the work.

By its immediacy, the internet provides a value to the reader. The plurality of voices and sources presents an unparalleled opportunity. Within that surface opportunity there is a deeper conformity of sources, methods, and approach to being understood and accessed. The immediacy and volume, despite the best Google filters, reduces our ability to think through ideas. As a result, pre-conceived notions tend to be reinforced and magnified. Instead of engaging new ideas, where are our minds are stretched and pulled, we skim past them.

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Tyrants have heard the words democracy and freedom, but how often are they preempted by an exposure to the idea?  In the Hiero, the tyrant, through a dialogue with the wise man Simonides, comes to a different understanding of the common good. The question, of course, is whether the tyrant changes from his exposure to the arguments by Simonides.

One could rightly argue that the internet is not designed to be a place for philosophy. In a sense, it may be more akin to the marketplace and not a private place conducive to philosophy.  Yet, that would raise the question, if connectivity is complete, where the private places exist for philosophy?  Are we in danger of pushing thinking, philosophy, to the margins as connectivity becomes the end?  The danger is that what fits within the medium, the 140 character limit, or the short essay of a blog becomes the diet of minds. Yet, those minds nourished in this way fail to connect to the deeper wellspring of knowledge. What remains to be seen is whether in the drive to an algorithmic powered semantic web we miss out what is crucial to our humanity: searching and finding meaning.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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