Finding Silence Amidst Modern Noise

Sometime in the summer of 2011, I believe it was, I read a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Carr, an accomplished writer on technology and culture, advances a simple thesis. The technologies of which we make use in ordering our lives and concepts influence the neurological formation and reformation of our brains. Specifically, ubiquitous use of the internet neurologically shapes our brains in ways that make sustained attention to problem-solving or data comprehension difficult.

I found Carr’s thesis persuasive. His book, together with a few articles I read around that time on technology and its influence on our lives, was the reason I decided in autumn 2012 to delete my Facebook account. That account has stayed dead for seven years now, except for brief periods during which I resurrected it in order to search for a specific person’s contact information, or to retrieve and then archive for posterity the conversations I had had through it. (Having perfected that archive, I permanently deleted my account.) I have never created or wanted to create any other social media account. This posture was spurred also by my reading of the messages Pope Benedict XVI would deliver on World Communications Days. In particular, something our Pope Emeritus said during his last such address, in 2012, struck me powerfully. “Silence is an integral element of communication,” he wrote; “in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.” He wrote also: “When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down.”

These passages provoked the question: What does silence within the relational nexus of social networking and social media look like, and how can it be distinguished from simple absence from those domains?

And it seemed and seems to me that the answer was that there is no way to distinguish silence from absence. One signals one’s presence in the digital community by producing output, activities—liking, retweeting, posting, sharing, polling, forwarding, conferring emoticon approval or disapproval, sending messages and memes and missives. The one who merely consumes others’ social-media output is indistinguishable from the one who creates an account but never logs into it, or even from the one who simply has no account but merely looks at others’. A user may be able to safely infer that those who follow him or like his page are in fact “listening” to what he produces. But the only way to know that is if the recipients in turn say so by producing counter-output. Of course, one can only at best infer that even a person with whom one is speaking face to face is listening, from the fact that it appears that he is. But body language, which the proverbial “they” say is the source of a majority of our interpretational “cues,” is not (usually) available to the internet reader consuming social media. This is an important difference.

Rather, it’s not so important that body language is absent from social media. Bodies are absent.

I don’t want to overstate this point or suggest that it proves more than it does. What it does show, I think, is that the very nature of social-media communication as in an important sense disembodied suggests that it’s antecedently probable that, ceteris paribus, the more one consumes and produces social media content, the more difficult it will be for that one to communicate in the actual embodied world, for precisely the reason Benedict offered: It is impossible to practice fruitful silence within the domain of social media. While that doesn’t mean that social-media users will be unable to practice silence in the non-social-media world, there’s an organic connection between what we do online and we do offline.

This all, if true, while a good reason to sign out, is not conclusive. I do think it the case that some people’s vocations require of them that they virtuously utilize social media platforms, even frequently. (Think of journalists.) But I also think that there are many good reasons to consider whether the time one spends on social media—and by extension on one’s phone and email, which are all now parts of a proudly connected web-cloud complex that we are told we ought to entrust our lives to would not be better invested elsewhere.

Michael Bradley (’14 B.A., ’17 M.T.S.) is a 1L at Notre Dame Law School. You can contact him at mbradle6@nd.edu.