An essay has appeared in First Monday, a peer-reviewed online journal about the Internet and its culture (for lack of a better description), that draws a good deal on Ivan Illich's thinking. In a nutshell, "Silence, delirium, lies?," by Caroline Bassett, argues that the best response to today's ubiquitous social media and its "monopoly" is simply to "stop communicating."
A call for "less communication," she writes,
at its most extreme a call for silence — is currently regarded as heretical in conditions of social media. But such a call should be made — because it can confront the fetishizing of the more associated with technological progress, when the latter is regarded as inseparable from progress in general — and when both are aligned with discourses that value growth as a social good. [emphasis in original]
Bassett is Reader in Digital Media and runs the Centre for Material Digital Culture, University of Sussex, UK. Her focus is on "digital transformation and cultural form, critical theories of new media."
Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are not what they purport to be, she writes. They actually don't amplify every individual's voice in the rising din of digital "conversation." More "communications" doesn't automatically produce "more freedom," as is widely assumed. "With this in mind," the abstract reads, "this paper asks if a media politics might be generated based on the potentials of silence, on speaking in tongues — and on relying on the resources of metaphorical language rather than on learning to speak or write in ways more amenable to code."
"The contract is very clear; social media demands personal data donation as the price for full engagement in those forms of communication that are becoming intrinsic to everyday life and that increasingly shape it. This exchange is the central component of what has emerged over at least a decade and a half as the standard model for the commoditized virtual community of all kinds … ."
So, Bassett urges, "find a way to resist terminal integration into expanding communicative circuits reaching far beyond the screen. There are various options: switch off, turn away, misspeak, refuse to play — or become silent. Don’t make the social noise that generates the exploitable signals."
She explicitly names Illich:
The work of the twentieth century activist and thinker Ivan Illich is key to the arguments developed here. Illich both analysed technologically based (social) monopolies (Illich, 1973) and in connected work explored silence as a response to earlier electronic media systems (Illich, 1983). As part of this he called for the establishment of the silent commons as a response to what he saw as the tyranny of the amplified voice and the evisceration of human relations within the electronically organized spaces such amplifications produced.
Bassett cites two of Illich's essays, "Silence is a commons" (1982), and Tools for Conviviality. Somewhat surprisingly, she doesn't mention his essay, "I Too Have Decided to Keep Silent" (1983), in which Illich suggests that people standing silently (and in public) is the best way of protesting the deployment of nuclear bombs. We look forward to reading this intriguing essay more closely.
Illich was writing about television and associated media systems, but in this article I ask if a return to silence might enable new forms of common space to be created today — so that individual and collective voices might be heard again beyond the personalized enclosures of the commercial social media platforms. Something Illich’s thinking can open up is the sense that there are ways of thinking about language — perhaps in terms of volume, audibility/silence, voice, complexity, and polysemy — that provide the basis for a response to social media monopoly; for a communication politics that might, despite beginning in the symbolic, be able to spill over into something — some places — more material.