Over the years, I’ve thought on and off about silence in the context of digital media. Mostly, this has taken the form of commending what came to be called strategic silence. The idea being that, given the dynamics of the attention economy, it is sometimes better to pass over certain developments in calculated silence than it is to comment on them or even to speak out against them.1 At other times I’ve commented on how the structure of social media generates an imperative to speak, and how in times of crisis and tragedy this imperative to speak feels especially disordered.
More recently, however, I’ve come to think that it is impossible to be silent online.
I don’t mean that it’s really hard and that we lack to will power to be silent. I mean that it is, quite literally, impossible.
“No, it’s not,” you may be thinking just now, “I do it all the time. It even has a name: it’s called lurking.”
I would propose, however, that we distinguish between the mere absence of speech and what might properly be called silence. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that it is impossible to enter into silence online.
Saying nothing, in other words, is not the same thing as silence. Silence is felt. It is meaningful. It is not mere negation. In fact, it can be, as we shall see, eloquent. But, and here I suppose is the crux of the matter, this kind of silence presupposes bodily presence. Silence, in the way that I’m encouraging us to think of it, emanates from the body taken whole.
Consider, for example, how even this word we’ve landed on for describing the practice of being online but saying/posting nothing, the word lurking, ordinarily suggests something rather untoward, even sinister precisely because in non-digitized settings it conveys the sense of watching without being seen, that is of a presence that hides itself, that fails to materialize in the sight of others.
To be clear, my interest here is not to police how the word silence gets used. You are perfectly within your rights to go on using the word silence however you please. Rather, I’m taking the opportunity presented by digital media to reconsider an aspect of analog experience that might not have been fully appreciated—a generally fruitful exercise, in my view, the point of which I should add, is simply to see both digital and analog forms of communication more clearly for what they are or for what they can and cannot be.
I have lately been helped in this direction by a couple of short, less well-known pieces by Ivan Illich, a couple of deep cuts, if you will. In the first, “Silence is a Commons,” Illich reflects upon the moment he was brought, within weeks of being born, to his grandfather’s estate off the coast of Dalmatia. He noted that little had changed on the estate since its establishment in the late middle ages. Then, however, something did change. “On the same boat on which I arrived in 1926,” Illich explained,
the first loudspeaker was landed on the island. Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication. As enclosure by the lords increased national productivity by denying the individual peasant to keep a few sheep, so the encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.
Illich would retain a lifelong aversion to using a microphone. And, before proceeding any further, let me say that I don’t think Illich is suggesting that there had never been other, more heavy-handed ways of silencing people before the advent of loudspeakers.
The idea of silence as a commons, as Illich described it here, suggests to a me shared space into which you and I might enter and have just as much of a chance of being heard as anyone else. Technologies that augment the human voice empower those who possess them at the expense of those who do not, setting off the escalatory dynamics that eventually generate counterproductivity. To put it that way, as long-suffering readers know by now, is to use standard Illichian terminology. Put otherwise, we might say that tools that augment speech trigger an arms race for ever more powerful tools that do the same until finally everyone is thus provisioned with the result being that human speech itself begins to break down.2 To give everyone a loud speaker is to assure that no one can be heard.
Illich’s anecdote is, of course, a provocative reversal of the usual way that new media tend to be presented as a necessarily democratizing and empowering force, and it seems closer to mark as the events of the last decade or so have illustrated. The ostensible promise of social media was that anyone’s voice could now be heard. Whether anyone would be listening has turned out to be another matter altogether, as would be the society-wide consequences.3 Naturally, this is not to deny that in some cases social media can serve the interest of marginalized communities. It is only to suggest the rather obvious point that, taken as a whole, its consequences are more complicated, to put it mildly.
“Just as the commons of space are vulnerable and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic,” Illich went on to argue, “so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication.” Illich was presenting these comments in 1982, and he had emerging electronic and computerized modes of communication4 chiefly in mind.
The issue he proposed to his audience for discussion was this:
how to counter the encroachment of new, electronic devices and systems upon commons that are more subtle and more intimate to our being than either grassland or roads - commons that are at least as valuable as silence.
“Silence, according to western and eastern tradition alike,” he went on to add,
is necessary for the emergence of persons. It is taken from us by machines that ape people. We could easily be made increasingly dependent on machines for speaking and for thinking, as we are already dependent on machines for moving.
There seem to be two distinct concerns for Illich. The first is that we lose the commons of which silence is an integral part and thus a measure of freedom and agency. The second, concurrent with the first, is that you and I may find it increasingly hard to be heard even as we are given more and more tools with which to speak. Alternatively, we might also distinguish between silence as a space of possibility and silence as itself a good to be defended, something we need for its own sake. Illich is reminding us yet again that what we may need is not more of something, in this case words, but less.
I would say, too, that the temptation to be resisted, if I may put it that way, is that of reducing human interaction to a matter of information transfer, something that can be readily transacted without remainder through technological mean. This is the message of the medium, in McLuhanist terms: that, becoming accustomed to electronic or digitized forms of communication, I forget all that is involved in being understood by another and which cannot be encoded in symbolic form.
A second early essay by Illich helped me to think about silence from yet another perspective: silence as an indispensable element of human conversation. In the 1960s, Illich was involved in leading intensive language courses in Mexico, mainly for clergy interested in learning Spanish. Illich prepared brief talks for participants, and one such talk has been published as “The Eloquence of Silence.”5
The title itself tells you much of what Illich will go on to say: silence can be eloquent, it can, paradoxically, “speak.” As Illich puts it in his opening remarks, “Words and sentences are composed of silences more meaningful than sounds.” Thus, as Illich explains, “It is … not so much the other man’s words as his silences which we have to learn in order to understand him.” And a bit further on, he adds, “The learning of the grammar of silence is an art much more difficult to learn than the grammar of sounds.”
Illich is presenting his students a view of language learning that renders it an ethical as well as a cognitive undertaking. He says, for example, that “to learn a language in a human and mature way is to accept the responsibility for its silences and for its sounds.” In his brief comments introducing the piece, Illich goes so far as to argue that “properly conducted language learning is one of the few occasions in which an adult can go through a deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another.”
Illich goes on to identify three different kinds of silences as well as their destructive and degrading counterfeits. I won’t walk us through each of these, but I will draw your attention to a few portions of Illich’s discussion. The primary context for what Illich has to say here is the face-to-face encounter, and we would do well, in my view, to take to heart what Illich has to tell us here, even if we’re not presently involved in language learning. It’s obvious that Illich is not just commending a technique for learning a language but a way of becoming a better human being. Recalling where we began, however, I would also encourage us to consider how the forms of silence Illich commends fare in the the context of social media and how we might adapt our use and expectations of social media accordingly.
“First among the classification of silences,” Illich tells his students, “is the silence of the pure listener … the silence through which the message of the other becomes ‘he in us,’ the silence of deep interest.” Illich adds that “the greater the distance between the two worlds, the more this silence of interest is a sign of love.”
Here Illich is encouraging a silence grounded in humility, a silence that arises not from a desire to be heard but from a desire to hear and to understand.
A second kind of silence is the silence that precedes words, a silence that is a preparation for speech. It involves a patience that deeply considers what ought to be said and how, one that troubles itself over the meaning of the words to be used and proceeds with great care. This silence is opposed, according to Illich, by all that would have us rush to speak. “The silence before words,” Illich adds, “is also opposed to the silence of brewing aggression which can hardly be called silence—this too an interval used for the preparation of words, but words which divide rather than bring together.”
There was a third kind of silence, “this is the silence of love beyond words,” Illich explains, but I will leave it to you to read what Illich has to say about that.
In both of the two former cases, Illich commends virtuous and meaningful silences that pass between people as they seek to be understood, indeed silences upon which meaning may very well depend. While Illich’s comments focus on speakers of different languages, it seems to me that what he has to say should inform how we relate to others even when we share a common language.
But, and here again is the point I’ve been driving at throughout this post, such silences can take shape only when we are in the presence of another, although even then, of course, they may fail to materialize. They seem to me to be the kind of silences that are mutually felt and acknowledged, that are a function not merely of the ceasing of sound but of a body at ease or eyes that remain fixed. These are silences that assure the other that they are being heard not ignored. Silences that, if attended to closely and with care disclose rather than veil, clarify rather than obfuscate. They gather rather than alienate.
The frequency with which the kind of silences we do encounter in the context of digital media occasion anxiety and misunderstanding and invite hostility is striking by contrast.
And let me say again that this is not intended as a brief against social media. It is rather a way of exploring at least one reason why the experience of social media can take on such a dispiriting quality. My suggestion here is that it does so, in part, because we are forced to make do without meaningful silences.
Maybe it is possible to bring the spirit of such silences to bear on exchanges that unfold on social media, but it seems that we are then working against the grain of the medium, seeking a fullness of experience in the absence of the materiality that sustains it. But perhaps that is all that we can do. To remember, in its absence, the silence that is not merely an absence. At least it seems to me that we are in a better position to proceed if we are at least aware of what we are missing when we seek to speak and to be heard online.
Coda: Most of this was written over the last day or two. It was finished, however, in the immediate aftermath of yet another tragic shooting, this one in Boulder, Colorado. The precise number of the dead has not been disclosed, but it appears that several lives have been lost. One of my first reflections on silence and social media was occasioned by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Nearly ten years later it seems that we’ve not come very far. At least it seems as if I am still trying to say more or less what I sought to say then:
We know that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.
Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for explanations and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and solutions. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence or “being with” or an embrace may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreplaceable.
I think it was Robin Sloan who put me on to this helpful essay by Gavin Gregg on the importance of distinguishing between to forms of silence. I commend the whole thing to you. Here’s a bit of it: “There is silence that is imposed, the result of a power differential, and is an element of the perpetuation of harm. We have begun to speak a bit about such silences, and it is difficult. It is also nothing less than a moral necessity. It is important to recognize the difference between that which is necessary and that which is sufficient.”
It occurs to me just now that Illich’s argument about counterproductivity might be usefully set alongside Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant invited us to consider the consequences were everyone to act as we did, specifically whether the cumulative effect of such action might not be to undermine the very aims we meant to accomplish by it. Illich’s notion of counterproductivity suggests an analogous analysis regarding our use of technology.
Returning to the obvious fact that people were silenced by a variety of means before the advent of electronic media (or printing, for that matter), it is interesting to note that the underlying ethical and political problem was never quite resolved (whether it could be is another question) but rather circumvented by the new technologies. Consequently, the problem keeps re-emerging always requiring a new technological intervention.
Illich disliked the term “communication,” which already suggested, in his view, a cold, bloodless abstraction for removed from the human lifeworld.
The essay is published in a 1971 collection titled Celebration of Awareness. It’s not readily available online.