In his latest article, Nick Spencer considers the Twittersphere and asks whether we really need to know what goes on inside our neighbour’s head. 06/03/2019
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As we edge ever closer to the cliff, and the cliff edges away from us, the temperature rises and tempers flare. We feel the need to discuss and deliberate our subtly different conceptions of the good and hopes for the future. So we take to Twitter.
I don’t tweet much. I should. My colleagues ‘encourage’ me. I promise them. I will.
But I do browse and graze, and when not being amused by clips from Only Fools and Horses and spoof political accounts, I read people saying things to people they don’t know that I am sure they would never say to their face.
That we all think such unpalatable things is, alas, undeniable. Scroll through the screen of your mind and you will, I am sure, find some pretty disturbing posts. That is who we are. We sin in thought, as well as word and deed, and it’s all too evident, to those who choose not to deceive themselves, that there really is ‘no health in us’.
But all of that is, at least, in us, where thoughts traditionally reside. At least until Twitter. For what this gift to humanity has offered us, beyond an infinite number of cute cats doing strange things, is the opportunity to read each other’s minds. No truth serum necessary. Just privacy, anonymity and opportunity. We’ll do the rest. In the click of a mouse, we all become telepathic. Perhaps that’s why we’re not getting on. We can hear what’s going on in each other’s minds, and it’s not appealing.
If this is so, we’ve been here before, literarily speaking. Once again, life imitates art. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (TV series, rather than radio or book, I think) he mentions a race called the Belcerabons. The Belcerabons, who live on the otherwise bleak planet of Kakrafoon Kappa, are intelligent beings who have developed an enlightened civilisation. They are sophisticated, serene people, given to contemplation, study and – above all – silence.
Not surprisingly, this infuriates surrounding planets who want them punished for their peaceful superiority. As a result, a Galactic Tribunal cruelly sentences the Belcerabons – to telepathy. Henceforth, Belcerabons can read one another’s minds. Indeed, their thoughts, if not immediately verbalized, are broadcast for everyone, including their jealous neighbouring planets, to hear.
The result is a catastrophe. Knowing what each other is thinking almost destroys their civilisation, and the only way the Belcerabons are able to cope is to drown out their otherwise audible thoughts by talking loudly and endlessly about utter trivia. Mindless cacophony saves them from knowing each other’s deepest thoughts, which would be even worse.
Some elements in this story do not match our own. Others, I contend, do. I’ll leave you to sort which from which.
I am old enough – sorry, sorry – to recall the promises held out by the prospect of an Internet–like network a quarter of a century ago. “The consequences will be truly profound in many diverse fields, such for example as agronomy, jurisprudence and medicine,” enthused one especially prescient report. I don’t know about you, but I can say that the jurisprudential revolution has certainly turned my life upside down.
But like so many technical developments, from fire and bigger sticks, to split atoms and modified genes, it is just possible to turn them to selfish and harmful ends. Humans are where we are today because of our unique ability to communicate complex, abstract and detailed information. We are creatures of the Word. But if our words are strewn about carelessly, spilling out into public without first being without being checked and balanced, our greatest strength will become our greatest weakness. You really don’t want to know what goes on inside your neighbour’s head.