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?
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.