Dreaming of Heaven? Connection and Disconnection in Cathy Davidson’s Commencement address at UNC

Cathy Davidson and I crossed paths very briefly at Duke what now seems ages ago, she one of the second wave of important hires during Duke’s heyday in the late 80s and 90s, me a graduate student nearly finished and regretting that I didn’t have a chance to have what the graduate student scuttlebutt told me was a great professor.  I was sorry to miss the connection.  And its one of the ironies of our current information age that I am more “connected” to her now in some respects than I ever was during the single year we were in physical proximity at Duke:  following her tweets, following her blog at HASTAC, checking in on this or that review or interview as it pops up on my twitter feed or in this or that electronic medium.

I’m sure, of course, that she has no idea who I am.

In the past several years, of course, Davidson has become one of the great intellectual cheerleaders for the ways our current digital immersion is changing us as human beings, much for the better in Davidson’s understanding.  Recently Davidson gave the commencement address at the UNC school of Information and Library Science and emphasized the the ways in which our information age is changing even our understanding of post-collegiate adulthood in the ways it enables or seems to enable the possibility of permanent connection.

How do you become an adult?   My students and I spent our last class together talking about the many issues at the heart of this complex, unanswerable question, the one none of us ever stops asking.  One young woman in my class noted that, while being a student meant being constantly together—in dorms, at parties, in class—life on the other side of graduation seemed dauntingly “individual.”  Someone else piped up that at least that problem could be solved with a list serv or a Facebook page.  From the occasional email I receive from one or another of them, I know the students in that class came up with a way to still stay in touch with one another. 

 In the fourth great Information Age,  distance doesn’t have to mean loss in the same way it once did.  If Modernity—the third Industrial Age of Information—was characterized by alienation, how can we use the conditions of our connected Information Age to lessen human alienation, disruption of community, separation, loss?  I’m talking about the deep  “social life of information,” as John Seely Brown would say, not just its technological affordances.  How can we make sure that we use the communication technologies of our Age to help one another, even as our lives take us to different destinations?  How can we make sure our social networks are also our human and humane safety net?  

via Connection in the Age of Information: Commencement Address, School of Information and Library Science, UNC | HASTAC.

At the end of her address Davidson asked the graduates from UNC–ILS to stand and address one another:

And now make your colleague a promise. The words are simple, but powerful, and I know you won’t forget them:  Please say to one another, “I promise we will stay connected.” 

There’s something powerful and affecting about this, but I’ll admit that it gave me some pause, both in the fact that I think it is a promise that is fundamentally impossible to keep, even amidst the powers of our social networks, and in the fact that I’m not sure it would be an absolutely positive thing if we were able to keep it faithfully.

The dream of permanent and universal connection, of course, is a dream of heaven, an infinite and unending reconciliation whereby the living and the dead speak one to another in love without ceasing.  But there are many reasons why this remains a dream of heaven rather than fact of life, not least being our finite capacity for connection.  According to some cognitive theorists, human beings have the capacity for maintaining stable relationships with at most about 200 to 250 people, with many putting the number much lower.  I am not a cognitive scientist, so I won’t argue for the accuracy of a number, and I cant really remember at the moment whether Davidson addresses this idea in her recent work, but to me the general principle seems convincing.  While the internet might offer the allure of infinite connection, and while we might always be able to add more computing power to our servers, and while the human brain is no doubt not yet tapped out in its capacities, it remains the case that we are finite, limited, and….human.  This means that while I value the 600 friends I have on Facebook and the much smaller congregation that visits my blog and those who follow me or whom I follow on Twitter, and a number with whom I have old-fashioned and boring face to face relationships in the flesh, I am meaningfully and continuously connected to only a very few of them comparative to the number of connections I have in the abstract.  This leads to the well-known phenomenon of the joyous and thrilling reconnection with high school friends on Facebook, followed by long fallow periods punctuated only by the thumbs up “like” button for the occasional post about  new grandchildren. We are connected, but we are mostly still disconnected.

And, I would say, a good thing too.

That is, it seems to me that there can be significant values to becoming disconnected, whether intentionally or not.  For one thing, disconnection gives space for the experience of the different and unfamiliar.  One concern we’ve had in our study abroad programs is that students will sometimes stay so connected to the folks back home–i.e. their online comfort zone–that they will not fully immerse in or connect with the cultures that they are visiting.  In other words, they miss an opportunity for new growth and engagement with difference because they are unwilling to let go of the connections they already have and are working, sometimes feverishly, to maintain.

Stretched through time, we might say that something very similar occurs if it becomes imperative that we maintain connections with communities, with the relational self, of our past to the extent that we cannot engage with the relational possibilities of our present.  In order to be fully present to those connections that are actually significant to me–even those relationships that are maintained primarily online–I have to let hordes and hordes of relationships die or lie fallow, maintained only through the fiction of connection that my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds happen to allow.

Of course, I don’t think saying any of this is necessarily earth shattering.  I am very sure that the vast majority of my Facebook connections are not pining away about the fact that I am not working hard at maintaining strong connections with every single one of them.  Indeed, I doubt the vast majority of them will even know I wrote this blog since they will miss it on their Newsfeed.  Indeed a good many of them are probably secretly annoyed that I write a daily blog that appears on their newsfeed, but for the sake of our connection they graciously overlook the annoyance.

On the other hand, I do think there is a broad principle about what it means to be human that’s at stake.  Connection isn’t the only value.  Losing connection, separation, dying to some things and people and selves so some new selves can live.  These are values that our age doesn’t talk much about, caught up as we are in our dreams of a heaven of infinite connection. They are, however, facts and even values that make any kind of living at all possible.

7 thoughts on “Dreaming of Heaven? Connection and Disconnection in Cathy Davidson’s Commencement address at UNC

    1. flujan

      The entire piece. Sometimes I feel like you say what I would like to of my site was more focused on the digital humanities. I just read this again- and the entire piece speaks to me- Your closing paragraph was really good! I guess it makes me think of something I would call the illusion of connectivity in a disconnected world. I found it interesting that you called your face to face interactions “boring.” Yet another sign that we are becoming overstimulated by technology (and remember I love technology and I am not old). We are steadily erasing the value and meaning of true connection! Have you ever heard of a project about the death of the letter? Read the first post I inserted the link to. I am fascinated by connection and disconnection- just check out “voyager interests” on my site- bottom right hand side, and you will connect 🙂







      1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

        Really liked the piece on the letter and it’s demise flujan. Thanks. I have thought about this a lot recently. My father has Alzheimer’s and last year we had to move my folks in to an assisted living facility. Part of that task ended up being going through hundreds of letters left by my grandfather to my dad trying to decide what to salvage, what to pass on, etcetera. There was something naked and direct about the generational connection, and,of course, now disconnection. I’ve also recognized how little of that commerce there is to pass on to my own son. Downloading and passing on my email and my tweets would be utterly absurd. I have, however, thought that this blog might be some such legacy, though not written directly to him. Interestingly, though, thinking about that possibility I think in terms of possibly using one of those services that turns your blog in to a book. The physicality some how still significant to me.

  1. Cathy Davidson (@CathyNDavidson)

    Thank you for this very smart post. Two quick thoughts inspired by this great post (this is the third time I’m trying: wordpress lost my previous two attempts so this is quick). First, connection in my commencement address (a very special moment of connection and separation) was offered especially in future moments of crisis: remember to reach back, to “think pair share” (the pedagogical method I discuss) . . . Second, we need to redo all the so-called cognitive studies modeled on Industrial Age or “quality control” productivity norms and on television era mass communications. 200 is a made up number. And doesn’t really work in the digital age where connections can be highly selective and uniquely connect us by community, habits, family, interests, jobs, and all the rest, 9000+ in our HASTAC network, not so many who share my love of tap dancing, smaller for family, and so forth. We dip in and dip out of intensities relative to the multifarious riches of our personalities and affects. I find that fascinating, and our research models are in drastic need of changing now that our metaphors AND our technologies of connection have changed. Thanks for inspiring these thoughts and for our, yes, connection!

    1. flujan

      Nice Cathy- I see he loves you for a reason. Has the address been digitized? I would like to listen to it…. This post by Peter was great!!!

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Cathy, thanks for this very generous response. Made my day–the old graduate studenty feel of having a prof say you wrote a smart paper. Hahahahaha!

    Substantively maybe we need more nuanced terms than connected and disconnected since of course you’re obviously right that there are new means of connection and a plethora of relationships that we move into and out of over the course of a day or a week. I’m still not so sure that the 200 number is just “made up”, though I’m not willing to defend it. It speaks, I think, to a fact that may be more primordial and I’ve seen this kind of discussion tied to evolutionary psychology–we are wired this way to some degree, and it may be reflected in tribal societies and in the fact that larger tribal societies would reorganize themselves in to clans and sects, etcetera etcetera. I don’t know whether to completely buy this or not, but it does speak to more deeply psychological notions about attachment. There is a limit somewhere. A person receiving 9000 tweets a day would probably throw their phone away or go mad, the infliction of distraction a tried and true method of psychological torture.

    I think what I’m getting at might be summed up in a question such as “Who do you grieve?” In a very abstract sense, of course, I might grieve for one of the 9000 people on HASTAC whom I might hear had died in a terrible accident, whether I had ever exchanged a tweet with them or not. I would probably not grieve at all if I found out that this or that person had left HASTAC in a snit. Some people, perhaps because they had a profound intellectual influence on me, I might grieve in a way that was a reflection of the instability of my own being in the world–I felt this way, bizarre as it may seem, when Derrida died. Something important about my life had ended and would not be recovered, no matter how many more of his books and articles I happened to read and no matter that I had never actually met him. However, only a very few people would I grieve on a more profound level of a sense of personal loss, an irrecoverable gap in my experience and understanding of the world. Thus there is a continuum of attachment or connection in the world, and some are far more profound than others, a fact the Facebook like icon and friend stats can lead us to ignore.

    This is why I’m not sure precisely that metaphors of the Industrial Age versus the Information age are the best at getting what I’m interested in here. As my metaphors may suggest, I think there is a spiritual or religious element here that might be best thought of as attachment and detachment, though we are using the allied but not equal terms of connection and disconnection. I think that many religious traditions have seen a kind of dialectical relationship between the two. Too much attachment to person and places or things would lead to an unhealthy point of distraction from the things that matter, something Zen Buddhists and Christian mystics agree on. At the same time, of course, the detachment that is practiced by mystics is designed very specifically to lead to certain deep forms of attending to the world. Thus the deepest detachment can be a form of caring attention, properly understood.

    Of course, I do think there are religious metaphors for what is happening in the networked world as well, as my post suggested. Especially, I do think there is a kind of jouissance, a forgetfulness of self that can happen on line and I can get absorbed in and dispersed through connection to others on line in a way that is very similar to the kind of self-forgetfulness that accompanies reading a novel, as different as those experiences are in other ways. I find myself emerging from long submissions to the net in much the same way that I emerge from an intense encounter with a novel. This self-forgetting is worth examining I think, though I don’t think it really discounts my basic insight that I’m clearly far more connected to a limited number of people I engage with online than I am with an other broader group of friends.


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