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Posted by on Dec 20, 2009

Levy, Contemplation, Friedman, French Taxi Drivers, and Silence

Note: I do apologize for those readers who aren’t interested in this sort of thing, but I would be bringing an occasional post from my University of Edinburgh course blog to this space. Not too many, hopefully. Just the occasional one that seemed interesting after rereading it.

Levy’s “Information, Silence and Sanctuary” presents an interesting case for contemplation, specifically allocating time and removing distractions for extended periods of time spent to simply think. The article draws heavily from Thomas Friedman and his situation with the taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris is revealing. With six different communication channels between them, neither the passenger nor the taxi driver spoke with each other. This analogy is meant to illustrate the growing fragmentation of modern life where everything vies for our attention and so nothing gets it entirely. This is unfortunately often true.

We are inundated with devices, blips, bleeps, vibrating contraptions and other interruptions into that occasional frolic into divine contemplation (or at least docile nothingness-just sitting there). We are pulled, almost literally, from our slumber with clocks, whistles, and all sorts of other noises designed to sever our connection with that world (that is their reason to be; they need to garner your attention). However, Friedman’s analogy seems a little simplistic to be anything other than anecdotal.

First, there is a chance that the lack of communication between the driver and Friedman was due to a lack of a common communication channel between them. There is an outside chance that Friedman does not speak French or is hesitant to do so. Regardless of whether this is true, it illustrates that language can be a communication barrier, one that many of these devices will serve to mollify a bit.

Further, how prone are we to talk to strangers regardless of our close proximity to them? How often does one strike up a conversation on the subway or a train? It seems that impromptu communication is much more prevalent on flights, but I suspect that has something to do with social interaction assuaging the impending fear of death foremost on everyone’s minds. Regardless, there are social factors here stunting communication well beyond the scope of technological barriers. A stare out the window or closing one eyes can signal disinterest in conversation just as easily as an iPod.

I suppose my ultimate point is that if communication devices are used in conjunction towards one ultimate pursuit, one singular point of reflection and observation, then cannot that indeed be contemplation? Is it jarring, a severing, an interruption if all devices (which are merely extensions of self) are focused on one pursuit? Isn’t all art based on this? A painter with a multitude of brushes and colors weaves them interdependently and does not consider them distractions. They are communication devices.

Multiple channels; one message. Retrieved December 12, 2009, from http://blissfullydomestic.com/wp-content/gallery/photo-bliss/collage-heart.jpg

I have no desire to downplay information overload as it indeed a real concern, one that plagues me as well at times (a few restless nights can attest to that). However, what I believe this represents is that we are still in our infancy of technological acumen. We see the tool as a thing and not as a tool; we are beholden to it and not the other way around. If we appropriate it for our own purposes (Twitter, iPhone, etc. as research tools), then we cease to see it as an interruption because it is more of an augmentation. How much is too much? That is indeed a valid question, but I suspect that we would be able to tolerate more “interruptive” devices if we aligned them with our overriding pursuits.

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2 Comments

  1. Hiya! What a great post! I think you’re entirely correct when you say, “… I believe this represents is that we are still in our infancy of technological acumen. ” and I try to bring up that point when I teach/talk about technology and learning. So many people (especially older people) are so very resistant to using computers or technology as a learning tool (and you’re right there too: that these devices and things are just ‘tools’) so I like to point out that technology and computers and the trimmings are *not going away*. I mean, it’s not like the audio-lingual method, or the “Silent Way” something, you know? ^^ Things are just beginning, really.

    The idea of not being owned (and obviously I use that word loosely) by machines is something that I’ve been thinking of a lot recently, especially since I started reading Iain M. Banks’ “Consider Phlebas”. Great read, btw!

    Another thing I thought of while reading, and this really just a thin – very personal – connection, is related to the first part of your post when you talk about contemplation, communication and fragmentation. These tools (cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, ipods, netbooks, etc) do not necessarily have to be communication slayers or contemplation detractors, right? I didn’t read Levy’s article (so this might not be pertinent) but I don’t fully buy into the idea that tools and toys prevent contemplation and that silence enhances it. I think this is related to age, frequency of use, and – this is connected to my next point – is highly dependent on individual personality. And personality is important, right?

    The fact that I (for example), while sitting on a subway or riding in a taxi, choose to text my friend instead of having a conversation doesn’t mean that a) I would have talked to the people/person around me if I didn’t have the phone and b) that that conversation, if it occurred, would have been meaningful.

    Something that I feel quite strongly in my own life is that I love having my phone/ipod with me so I can do things like: text in awkward situations or have a socially acceptable excuse (ear phones in/can’t hear you/sorry!) for NOT talking to someone I just don’t ‘click’ with. I feel confident enough in my own ‘spidey senses’ to believe that if I come across a taxi driver who intrigues me or makes me feel comfortable then I’ll engage said driver and happily turn off my ipod. I see my clutter of toys as keeping me in touch with the people I really care about, and helping me filter out the unwanted attentions of people I don’t want to talk to. The (general) idea that technology prevents communication seems to rest on the assumption that all forms of communication are equally as important and that b) people have forgotten how to turn off their machines. I don’t think these things are true, in my experience.

    Now. THIS is the longest comment EVER. I dare you to try to top that someday! Thank you for reading my essay!

    • Hello there Melissa,

      Wonderful response and I do appreciate you taking the time to write it (and thank you for reading my essay at the end was a nice flashback to my time teaching in Korea!). I will respond to your response below.

      So many people (especially older people) are so very resistant to using computers or technology as a learning tool (and you’re right there too: that these devices and things are just ‘tools’) so I like to point out that technology and computers and the trimmings are *not going away*. I mean, it’s not like the audio-lingual method, or the “Silent Way” something, you know? ^^ Things are just beginning, really.

      Absolutely! It is not going away so one has to develop a level of discernment with these things. It has utility and if it can help one’s communication then more power to it. With certain generations, I stress the utility and with others, I stress the toolkit. These are all just bits of a toolkit and they all enhance existing processes. If it doesn’t work for you, then feel free to remove it but don’t just ignore it.

      These tools (cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, ipods, netbooks, etc) do not necessarily have to be communication slayers or contemplation detractors, right? I didn’t read Levy’s article (so this might not be pertinent) but I don’t fully buy into the idea that tools and toys prevent contemplation and that silence enhances it.

      Agreed. If encapsulated within one’s existing method of communication or even just general cognition, then they are not contemplation detractors. More to the point, they augment that existing worldview by allowing for some more ambient conversation (Twitter especially). It is like another voice in a choir or the buskers in the subway. It is an additive. And your last point about personality is so incredibly true. That is what an individualized, empowered learner is all about, understanding how information flows through and from them. It is very important to know thyself in these scenarios; otherwise the utility of a lot of these tools will be lost.

      Something that I feel quite strongly in my own life is that I love having my phone/ipod with me so I can do things like: text in awkward situations or have a socially acceptable excuse (ear phones in/can’t hear you/sorry!) for NOT talking to someone I just don’t ‘click’ with. I feel confident enough in my own ‘spidey senses’ to believe that if I come across a taxi driver who intrigues me or makes me feel comfortable then I’ll engage said driver and happily turn off my ipod. I see my clutter of toys as keeping me in touch with the people I really care about, and helping me filter out the unwanted attentions of people I don’t want to talk to.

      Great, great point. Spidey sense=intuition/social intelligence. These are not always inherent traits, but are developed through a million different inputs each and every day. The ability to socially navigate all these worlds, transliteracy(great read), is currency in this modern world. You (as do I) are using these tools as social extensions of your existing Melissa-self; you have appropriated them for your own use, an act of an empowered learner. One has to be fearless in this regard and determine how these tools add to the equation of self. Great stuff!

      Take a look at the Levy article itself. You might enjoy some of the points. I think we can capture contemplation and sanctuary online in a million different ways.

      Thanks for the recommended reading. I am going to pick it up for sure! Take care Melissa and a very Merry Christmas to you!

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