Silence and Being, or, A contemplative post on technology on a drizzly-snowy Sunday afternoon

I’m sitting at my workstation in the lab on a drizzly-snowy (half drizzle, half snow…) Sunday afternoon, tuning down after an excellent and convivial brunch (thanks, Emma E!). There is no one here other than Emma herself, working hard in the other room of HUMlab 1, and the lab is unnaturally silent. I spend my time doing the usual writing and reading (a dastardly conference paper due on Tuesday – aaugh!… And, therefore, I blog……), but also contemplating all the technology around me, of which there is no shortage in the lab. These machines are seldom so quiet; they are usually engulfed in a hive of activity – computers humming, screens being pushed across rooms, screens alight with text and images, screens around which students cluster and point to and discuss about. And now they (other than my own workstation) are dark and silent around me, each blank screen tabula rasa – machines that aren’t being functional or fulfilling some purpose, but just there. Just sitting. Just being.

I like this silence, this return to a contemplation of nothingness. Earlier this morning, I came across an article from Internet Evolution about how a “Web-centric tech conference” in downtown New York 2 days ago disallowed at its event laptops, Twitter and WiFi – ie, all the things which define civilisation today. “The ‘audience’ is actually an audience”:

This is the first event I’ve been to in quite a while where the “audience” is actually an audience. No one is Tweeting out the quotes, bit by bit; no one is live-streaming the sessions; there is no Twitter board to which people try desperately to post snarky comments.

Instead, we’ve been forced to just listen, to acknowledge that there is room for both a storyteller and a passive audience, even in the world of technology.

HUMlab has had seminar live-streaming for a while now, and last Tuesday we started (?) a seminar Twitter feed with Charles Ess’s “Trust and Democracy Online” seminar. There are indisputable benefits to these initiatives, which is why we do them: the stream sessions are a treasure archive – I have used and viewed them extensively – and the tweets achieve what tweets achieve – relatively real-time, micro-blogging notes of a live event.

But I think there is also space for silence and time for machines to fall quiet. I have called before for fewer cameras – the more images we record, the less we seem to see. Perhaps sometimes we need to look less, to hear less. Like today. Like now. Like here. Just be.

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