Reading [digitally] alone…together

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by Kevin Eagan

For today’s blog post, I focus on reading collaboratively. Do digital technologies really make it easier for us to share and connect with other readers? What does it mean to connect with someone else, as a reader?

“[B]eing alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other.” — Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other

being alone, together, through text

One of the things I like most about my kindle is the ability to share my notes and highlights with friends. Whenever I choose to share a note, I tap one button and tweet whatever I want about the book. My kindle has deep integration with my social network.

Which would be great, except that I’ve never had a conversation with a friend about a note I tweeted from a book. Instead of creating a new dialog, the kindle sharing function has left me feeling even more isolated than before. It’s one thing to read a book and never mention it to anybody, but it’s another to share something that never gets a response back.

However, if I read this same book and comment in a general sense about something significant during a conversation with a friend, it can turn into a thoughtful, deep, meaningful experience in only a couple of minutes. Despite the ability to tweet the same thing out instantly, nothing replaces a real conversation.

I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other off and on over the past month (explaining the title for today’s post). Turkle critiques our lack of human connection as we become more digitally plugged in. She presents the true paradox of a digital life: that in order to become more connected, we become more isolated. We are alone together, and no matter how many “share” buttons we integrate into our apps, the isolation we feel goes deep into our psyche.

In a recent interview, Turkle explains how this phenomenon works on twitter: “I think it’s an interesting notion that sharing becomes part of actually having the thought. It’s not ‘I think therefore I am,’ it’s, ‘I share therefore I am.’ Sharing as you’re thinking opens you up to whether the group likes what you’re thinking as becoming a very big factor in whether or not you think you’re thinking well.” It is as if the act of sharing itself becomes the purpose, not what’s being shared.

This is a real problem, but I wouldn’t be here writing this today if I thought it was the end of true connectedness. I want us digital-minded readers to feel, connect, and do more than share. Sharing is not what it means to be connected, to be fully human. But can true human connectedness be computed? Can we feel through a cold device? Well, can we “feel” on paper? Some say yes, but I’m not sure myself.

“Fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being.” — David Foster Wallace

In his 1990 article “E. Unibus Puram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace tries to make sense of television’s role in his and many of his fiction writing peers’ art, writing, and view of the world. While finding value in television, he reveals that television creates a perception of connectedness, but that its true effect is to create a deep isolation based on voyeurism. By connecting with actors and actresses in studios that “live” behind glass, we feel both further connected and deeply isolated. What happens is that we become nothing more than creepy voyeurists:

“[T]he single biggest part of real watchableness is seeming to be unaware that there’s any watching going on. Acting natural. The persons we young fiction writers and assorted shut-ins study, feel for, feel through most intently are, by virtue of a genius for feigned unself-consciousness, fit to stand people’s gazes. And we, trying desperately to be nonchalant, perspire creepily on the subway.”

While this is Wallace’s attempt to describe the disconnection felt from a different technological era (pre-internet), it reveals an interesting dilemma facing fiction writers and readers in the 21st Century: how do we both critique that creepy voyeurism — sharing, checking in, tagging — and revel in it? Wallace said that while TV watching is basically voyeurism, so is reading and writing really good fiction. So it’s perfectly acceptable to both feel and not feel, to share and to disconnect when it’s needed, and to write about a world in which both can work together in harmony.

Once again, I will end a post with more questions than answers, which is kind of the point. Today, I want readers to think about what it really means to be connected to fiction — in any form, on any media format. As Wallace said, “fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.