Act 1: The buzzing of keyboards
The 140 Characters Conference was held at the New World Stages in New York on June 16-17, 2009. The New World Stages are a large complex of five stages seating different audience sizes, up to about 500 people, along with lounges, lobbies, and galleries. Much of it is underground – one who’s never been there is quite unprepared for what he or she will find once inside the doors and down the escalator.
In the theatres, the seats rise on a steep gradient. Everything is painted black, and the lighting makes anything on stage come out into the setting, seeming to float in space, vividly in color.
During the conference, I was distracted by a low hum in the background: the sounds of fingers on keyboards. At least half the audience had their laptops open and were tapping away at all kinds of messages, dozens of Tweets being unleashed as each speaker spoke about the world of Twitter and Tweeting from some different point of view.
The hum was distant and faraway, sounding as though it came from some hollowed out source not quite in the room. It was enchanting, if in an industrial kind of way, bringing to my mind in a Proustian moment an incident that was altogether different and yet fundamentally similar.
Act 2: One dog, one man, and thousands of bees
On a sunny spring day in April of 2008, I laid down with Duke under a gnarly, knotted, scrubby, runty tree. There we rested for some time, children (including my own son) playing nearby, blue sky and warm yellow sunlight all around.
I noticed a bee flying just over me. It wasn’t trying to touch me, though it came close. As it buzzed off, I saw another coming down, slowly descending – then another, and another. Suddenly, hundreds of bees reminded me of World War II photographs of paratroopers, but unlike paratroopers, no bees landed on us. They came close and then flew off.
In the air above, I heard the low grade, ambient sound of buzzing. Unlike anything I’d ever heard, it was assuredly distant, warm, and safe. An aural blanket covering the scene, enchanting in a distinctly pre-industrial kind of way.
Act 3: Enter the Queen
I sought a pattern in their behavior, and I soon found one. Each bee – after buzzing around in an inert, hovering, apparently directionless state – slowly made its way to an extended branch of that knotted tree. The swarm began packing itself on one part of the branch, growing from a small ball of bees to an enormous, undulating bulb. A huddled, tired mass, to be sure.
Swarms like this occur when the Queen decides it’s time to move the whole the colony to a new home, or when a new Queen is born and leaves with part of the old colony – her brothers and sisters and not her offspring – in order to establish a new one. Somewhere beneath the mass of bees above me was the Queen, who would be vulnerable until they built a new home.
Act 4: Of the social organism
In the Queen, the insect colony becomes incarnate and we see that very magic trick that occurs again and again in nature: the metaphysical made real. To live or die as an individual bee makes sense only as a function of the Queen’s existence. She alone carries the source, yet she cannot exist alone, without her offspring. The social organism is a whole that has no physical being in itself, but is instead a thing greater than sum of its irreducible, individual parts, each of which will fight to the death to protect the Queen.
The social impulse, according to Donald Ingber, is something we can see in fractals throughout organic nature, beginning with bacteria, single-cell based colony creatures, cellular cooperation in larger organisms, insects, and possibly ourselves.
One group of Argentine ants may have broken the geographical barrier between kinship and colony. These ants have created a kind of mega-colony that exists in North America, Europe, and Japan. Even though they live across such vast distances, they behave like ants who live in one colony, refusing to fight each other and yet ruthlessly destroying non-kin ants they find in their way. It is the “largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.” Interestingly, these ants were able to establish such distant colonies because people, however unwittingly, carried them there.
Human beings are the only large animal that has managed to populate the world in numbers and social structures that can be compared to the social insects – ants, bees, termites. Our technologies – language, boats, smoke signals, printing presses, as well as the World Wide Web and Twitter – have enabled us to break the micro-social, hunter-gather barrier and form true social organisms.
Act 5: Living in the land of ideas
Unlike ants or bees, however, we may be creating a new kind of meta-social being that relies on the very gap between the individual and social organisms. In that gap, we remain as individuals happily, fruitfully, and contentedly human in the smallish communities that make our lives meaningful. Exploring that gap was the whole point of the 140 Characters Conference, as it is of the plethora of commentary on Twitter and social media that one can find all over the Web, from those who damn Twitter for destroying thoughtful cultural production to those who celebrate and explain its benefits.
Further distinguishing ourselves from social insects, each Twitterer and his or her followers constitute a kind of spontaneous swarm that exists only in cyberspace. Unlike the swarm of bees that I witnessed overhead last year, one very busy bee in Twitter can be part of many swarms, in addition to being the Queen of his or her own. These swarms are multiple, derivative, tumescent, and utterly human.
In the buzz of Twitter, our ideas themselves become protagonists. As Jay Rosen, one of the more thoughtful mediators of the phenomenon puts it,“Twitter keeps me in touch with people who are friends of my ideas. I know about their projects and current obsessions; they know about mine.” Todd Chaffee, a digital media expert, goes so far as to call Twitterspace “the global mind.” One blogging group, The Hive Mind, is comprised of 5 science writers who actively swarm around topics and blog their work.
William Saletan, Slate’s prolific blogger on science and the human condition, observes a migration going on between dual and overlapping worlds of physical experience and cybercommunication, as we “shift our mental attention and our comfort zone from the physical to the digitally enhanced environment.”
He notes such people are “lost in invisible worlds,” but that’s not true. They’re living in the spaces between very real and tangible worlds, seen and unseen, building swarms and with them the ethereal sounds of buzzing keyboards humming in the background of everyday life, as audible now to the rest of us as presumably the sounds of automobiles once were to our great-grandparents’ generation.
I doubt we’ll ever truly understand ourselves as a social organism. We are biologically individual creatures, and we perceive the world through individual minds, even when our perception is helped along by the grand edifice of knowledge and social consciousness that helps us understand the world.
Yet solipsism isn’t what it used to be.
We needn’t be as depressed and desperate as Sartre or Morrissey, nor as arrogant as Richard Dawkins, in order to understand how the gap between self and other makes us who we are. That gap is the place of creation: of all art, science, technology, storytelling, representation, and myth-making. Einstein, unicorns, cave paintings, and Twitter all come from the same urge to touch the whole, and in these bursts of creativity we see truth and beauty and all that makes our short time in the conscious world as good, or bad, as it can be.
Notes and credits
A special thanks goes to Marcia Stepanek, a friend and colleague whose Cause Global blog chronicles how new developments in technology and communications affect the worlds of philanthropy and cause-based action. She invited me out to the 140 Characters conference which made my observations on Twitter possible. You can also see her blog postings at Pop!Tech and the Stanford Innovation Review.
On the micro-social, hunter-gatherer societies: For people, these are the smallish, tribal societies that were the basic form of human social organization for most of our history, say from the time we began living on savannahs until the advent of large, social agriculture. This covered a time period of roughly a million years or more, depending on how you want to define human beings. In the animal world, wolves, lions, elephants, wasps, and a few other animals still use this form of social organization. Some of the writers I’ve read on this period of our history are Jared Diamond, in The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs, and Steel, his blockbuster on technology and change in the social organization. Also quite interesting is Colin Tudge, The Time Before History, which examines human history and the impact of people on the planet for the last 5 million years. Tudge’s book is good fodder for thinking about global warming in a very long-vue sense.
William Saletan’s posting which I quote above was not about Twitter, but rather about Blackberry and cell phone usage. Interestingly, a search of Saletan’s blog at Slate for “Twitter” brings back no results. Full disclosure: his blog, “Human Nature,” has been a source of inspiration for a number of years.
Chris Weingarten’s presentation at the 140 Characters Conference was one of the more raucous and interesting. Among his provocations was this: “Crowd sourcing kills art,” and I reference him above as a critic of Twitter, who is also a constructive, critical user of it. At @1000TimesYes, Weingarten is reviewing 1000 CD’s on Twitter, even while he provides a very pointed view on the negative impact of Twitter on cultural production. Weingaretn’s blog is called Poisson d’Avril. Here you can see the Twitter reviews and appreciate the minimalist form of review on your own, such as the review of one of my favorites, Green Day, “If the world ends tonight, Green Day made the album of the year.” Or the more esoteric pan of someone whose music I have also enjoyed, Regina Spektor, “In New York, even our twee is meta.#4.5.” Gonna have to find the album just to figure out what he means, though I have an idea.
Counterpoint: Solipsism isn’t what it used to be, but for Chris Weingarten and lots of others, social media like Twitter have the ironic effect of increasing solipsism by creating flocks of people telling each other “all about me.” It’s a topic I am thinking about.