It’s a lack of imagination to think that our choice is the social media platforms we have now or nothing. I can’t stop thinking about something Robin Sloan, novelist and former Twitter employee, wrote this year: “There are so many ways people can connect with each other online, so many ways to exchange and conviviality can be organized. Look at those screens, that washing of pixels, the liquid potential! What a colossal disappointment that Twitter has reached a local maximum, that its network effect still consumes (!) fuel for other possibilities, other explorations.
What has surprised me the most as Twitter has convulsed in recent weeks is how worn out the social media closet really is. Many are open to trying something new, but so far there is nothing so new to try. It all looks like a take on Twitter. It might be faster or slower, more decentralized or more moderate, but they’re all variations on the same theme: experiments about how to grab attention rather than deepen it, platforms designed to encouraging us to speak rather than helping us to listen or think.
Allow me a weird twist here. I have been interested this year in the way Quakers deliberate. As a movement, Quakers have been well ahead of the moral curve time and time again – in early abolitionism, gender equality, prison reform, pressure on governments to they help save the Jews from the Holocaust. That’s not to say the Quakers didn’t do anything wrong, but what made them so wrong?
The response suggested by Rex Ambler’s beautiful book “The Quaker Way” is silence. In a typical Quaker meeting, writes Ambler, members of the community “sit together in silence for about an hour, rising to speak only when called upon to do so, and only then to share ideas which, according to them, will be useful for others.” If they have to collectively decide on a matter, “they will wait in silence together, once again, to discern what needs to be done.” There is a lot that debate can offer, but a lot that it can obscure. “To get a clear picture of what is going on in our lives, we Quakers try to go deeper,” he wrote. “We have to let go of our active and restless minds to do this. We shut up and allow a deeper and more sensitive awareness to emerge.
I find it powerful in part because I see it in myself. I know how I respond in the heat of an argument, when my whole being is strained to react. And I know how I deal with difficult questions or difficult emotions after quiet reflection, when my mind has time to calm down. I know who my best self is.
Democracy is not and will not be a long Quaker meeting. But there is wisdom here that is worth pondering. We don’t make our best decisions, as individuals or as a collective, when our minds are most active and restless. And yet, “active and restless” is about the most accurate description I can imagine of the Twitter spirit. And after putting us in an active and restless mental state, Twitter then encourages us to launch declarative statements on the most controversial issues possible, always with an eye on how quickly they will accumulate likes and retweets and therefore a power viral. It’s crazy.
And it’s gonna get worse from here. OpenAI recently released ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence system that can receive plain language queries (“Write me an argument for the benefits of single-payer healthcare, in the style of a Taylor Swift song”) and spit out remarkably passable results.