I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that less and less people want to use the phone. I cannot help but draw a correlation between this observation and the ubiquitous rise of digital communication. Email? Sure. Text? Yup. And what’s wrong with this, you might ask? On paper it would objectively appear that text-based communication (particularly including social media) is superior at transferring information without error, if only us pesky humans didn’t make mistakes. And this last part is key: we are not objective, we balance the objective world with our much less easily measurable experiential (or personal) reality; this second reality is informed by our experiences, which are diverse and sometimes punctuated by trauma or loss. When we talk to someone on the phone we are leaving ourselves prone — to fallibility (stammering, going off on a tangent), or having our hesitations read as something we may not otherwise wish to reveal.
I was thinking about these things (and many others) when I began reading Sarah Schulman’s powerful book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. The problem with nearly all forms of digital communication and social media (with the exception of apps like Skype, etc) is that there is no actual dialogue — we aren’t allowed to have the sort of vulnerable conversations that speaking in-person or on the phone forces us into. And, in one of the book’s more important diagnoses, Schulman recognizes this as a key ingredient in the escalation of violence. Instead we are only allowed to trade unidirectional statements, leaving nuance and human connection by the wayside. So, when we have a disagreement with someone via text it becomes easy to pile on them, to vilify them. We can’t see them and there is no way for them to interject. On a social media platform like Twitter, this sort of conflict easily escalates into directing the wrath of groups upon an individual. Continue reading