Well Intended / What would Aristotle tweet?
Published 4:34 pm, Thursday, April 26, 2012
Lately I wonder if I am capable of cultivating a thought longer than 140 characters. My ideas want to be abbreviated and seem to disappear faster than the notices on a scrolling bar of Facebook feed.
Granted, the last few weeks haven't been entirely typical. I've had kids home from school, and I have worked on several brief ghostwriting jobs in lieu of one longer project that I can really ruminate. But, I hardly think my experience is unique.
It feels like the world is getting faster and the content of our communication -- as it becomes more and more instant -- is also increasingly brief. We take in information by scanning in lieu of reading, listening, debating and synthesizing. And frequently, we're doing more than one thing at once. I am often drinking my coffee while driving, making dinner and responding to email simultaneously or researching a project while watching a movie with the kids. When I am consistently over-engaged, how can I expect to cultivate and nurture actual thought?
Last week, I was hired by a Harvard junior to tutor him on writing for his ethics class. I welcomed the opportunity, and as I quickly warned him that I have never studied ethics, I downloaded his syllabus and read Kant's Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morality on my Kindle reader and highlighting passages I thought we might discuss. I was also able to access a plethora of essays, commentary, audio and video lectures on the topic. I was pleasantly saturated in my research, certain that I could catch up on a semester's worth of instruction. I enjoyed following Kant's ideas and contrasting them with my own. But how would I break down the convoluted concepts into simple, modern language?
I wonder how the old philosophers like Kant would present ideas if they were alive today. Would he have been a blogger? Kant's concepts are highly debatable and rely as much on the nuances of language as they do pragmatics. Would modern readers follow the logical progression of the arguments of Socrates, Hume or Locke today or would philosophers respond to our waning attention and Photoshop their ideas as uplifting quotations layered over rainbow sunsets and post them on social media? Would Aristotle get a lot of shares if he wrote an opinion piece for today's newspapers?
In exchange for instant information and constant engagement, I worry that I sacrifice depth of thought. I am concerned that I am forgetting how to contemplate.
Have I chosen brevity over meaning? I am fortunate enough to have smart friends. In order to remain relevant, I feel the impulse to curate information and to rapidly share it across social media platforms. I see something beautiful and want to photograph it and share it, or I read something clever, and I am tempted to post a link. But, what's happened to days of solitary contemplation? What if instead of sharing a link to the book I just finished, I wrote a paragraph or two in a journal and summarized my thoughts? What if I discussed it with a friend while seated at a table over a cup of coffee in a non-disposable cup? Imagine!
I'm not suggesting that we re-enroll in ethics 101 and sludge through ancient philosophical rhetoric. But, I realize I am hungry for more than the little snacks of information I've been consuming lately.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.