First, we had talking.
Given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking and listening to one another. It’s a capacity we’ve built by doing it for hundreds of thousands of years.
If we settle and quieten ourselves, if we tone down our inner chatter and impulsivity, we can speak powerfully with one another in ways that foster deep understanding and the exploration of wide-open possibility. And we can take action together, directly and effectively, by making and responding to each others’ promises and commitments.
But our technology, to which we are so addicted, does not always help us with this.
We invented the telephone, a revolution in connectivity, opening up wide new possibilities to talk and listen with those not physically present with us.
This, at least, is synchronous. We must speak to a person who is actually there, when they are there. We have to be in conversation. We have no choice but to witness to their reactions to what we’re saying, and they to ours. Though stripped of the bodily presence of another, a conversation by phone brings us in contact with them.
But then we invented voicemail (first, the answer machine), allowing us to speak when the other person is absent.
And we invented email and text messaging, forums and Facebook and social media of many kinds, which enabled us to exchange messages more quickly and fluidly than recorded voices would allow.
And we found that we loved them.
These are asynchronous technologies. They afford us the possibility of speaking and listening without the other’s simultaneous presence. And we like this because leaving messages feels much less risky, much less exposing, much safer than the delicate work of speaking with another live human being with emotions and reactions, thoughts and judgements, cares and commitments.
We get to speak without having to be vulnerable.
And, because we like this feeling of safety more than we will admit, today we drown under a deluge of messages. We spend our time interacting with ghosts – distant others who are not there to feel or hear what we have to say. We do not even have to speak. And, most importantly, we are spared feeling or experiencing others’ reactions to us.
We say this drowning is ‘just how it is’, but fail to see that we’re making a choice. A choice to stay secure behind our machines. A choice to accept a flood of disembodied words at the expense of the shakiness and power of speaking directly to other people.
We’ve made the world this way, and it’s killing us.
But we can do something about it because, first, we had talking.
And we still have it, if we would choose to turn towards one another.
Because given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking, and listening. It’s a capacity we’ve built already by doing it, very well, for hundreds of thousands of years.