Impoverished Emotional Lives
Is this anything?
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. This is a brief installment to be filed under the “Is this anything?” category, one unpolished idea for your consideration in roughly 500 words, give or take. In this case, I’m entertaining the possibility that we feel too little rather than too much.
From one perspective, you could argue that ours is an excessively emotional age. Outrage and fear are the currency of public discourse; thoughtfulness and reason appear to be in retreat. But, from another angle, I’m tempted by a different proposition: Maybe it is actually the case that our emotional lives are impoverished. The following observations circle around this proposition.
I have sometimes argued that, in the context of social media, “affect overload” is just as much of a problem as “information overload.” “It is the emotional register that accounts for the Pavlovian alacrity with which we attend to our devices and the digital flows for which they are a portal,” I observed in 2017. “Twitter says ‘feel this,’ we say ‘how intensely?’ Social media never invites us to step away, to think and reflect, to remain silent, to refuse a response for now or may be indefinitely.” That still seems basically right to me, but I don’t think I adequately accounted for the quality of the emotional experience. I’m wondering now whether the problem is not that I’m called upon to feel too much, but that I am not allowed to feel enough, to feel deeply and at length.
The rhythms of digital media rush me on from crisis to crisis, from outrage to outrage. Moreover, in rapid succession the same feed brings to me the tragic and the comic as well as the trivial and the consequential. So, it’s not just that I do not have the time or space to think deeply. I also do not have the time or space to feel deeply. I skim the surface of each emotional experience, but rarely can I plumb its depths or sound out its meaning. Consequently, I lose something of the richness of the emotions and miss out on their appropriate consolations. I feel enough to be overwhelmed and depleted, but I cannot inhabit an emotional experience long enough to see it through to its natural fulfillment with whatever growth of character or richness of experience that might entail.
I think, for example, of the contrast afforded by elaborate forms of mourning and celebration in traditional cultures, forms and rituals that unfolded across days and weeks. By contrast, my emotional life is channeled far more narrowly by digital media. I enjoy neither the time such customs might have afforded me, nor their wider array of expressive forms (silence, presence, gesture, touch, etc.). (As an aside, I’m tempted to argue that we already set off on the wrong path when we began to talk about emotions as something to be “processed.”)
It’s been observed that part of the problem with online discourse is that it detaches from the ostensible object of analysis and devolves into discourse about itself. Similarly, emotions detach from their proper object and attach to the discourse and its participants. This may explain the often bizarre disproportionality of emotional expressions online.
The policing of other’s emotional expressions is one sign that the discourse is colonizing our emotional life. Such policing tends to generate an artificiality of (usually negative or critical) emotional expression, and conditions us to avoid certain (usually positive or earnest) emotional expressions. Under these conditions, emotional life is stunted. The range of legible emotions is constricted. Complex or subtle emotional experiences are overwhelmed by the demand for intense and uncomplicated emotional expressions.
The gist of the above is that our emotional lives tend to be impoverished in an online context. This happens because the temporal rhythms of digital media are inhospitable to achieving a depth of emotional experience and because our emotional expressions are conditioned into a relatively narrow range. So, is this anything? Is it helpful? Does it resonate? Comments are once again open.