The importance of being distant – for democracy’s sake

I was microblogging this evening; following a train of thought as I do.

I realised that – whether by design or not, by intention or by neglect – social networks have destroyed the very foundations of democracy.

Let me explain.

They bring us together; so close we begin to learn the kind of detail only intimate friends – and I mean intimate in its most private sense – used to know of each other.

Yes. Often this makes for less loneliness. But loneliness is a positive too; not just a sadness.

Being alone can be undeniably neutral, of course. But I mean to focus on the word “loneliness”; I’m not sliding carelessly between two concepts here.

I concluded my train of thought with the following tweet:


Loneliness is a powerful driver to action: out of loneliness, for example, so much wonderful art has been created. But I would argue that its power has operated much further than simply in fields of horizon-broadening creativity.

Democracy, which is what occupies us today, was built on foundations of individual and societal liberties both. But not only liberties – also, distance, divisions, oases of intelligent contemplation …

By being separate from one’s neighbour, by nattering over those garden fences that defined the limits of property, territory and space, we came close and simultaneously maintained healthy distance. Healthy precisely because without personal space, we will always have little time for the person we are. And a democracy without the discreteness of eccentricity and the difference I’ve mentioned – exactly what personal space and its prevalence leads to – is entirely incapable of flourishing or renewing itself.

So maybe Twitter and Facebook weren’t literally designed to make us all the same, out of some bizarre consumerist “choice” … maybe such social networks aren’t the virtual equivalent of schoolkids who, once freed of school uniforms, decide without exception to wear blue jeans and T-shirts … but whether intentionality existed or not, the result of such intensely close and resiliently consistent interactions has been to root out the silences and distances which used to guarantee our ability to think our own thoughts; to come up with our own ideas; and – fundamentally – to again make new the planet.

If we are to do anything for the future, we have to devise a way of seeing things from afar once more.

As I pointed out at the beginning of my train of thought tonight:


But I also concluded that:


And if our democratic institutions need anything right now, then it is the personal objectivity and imagination we get from maintaining a greater distance – combined with the vigour, attentiveness and good faith of an always creative thought.

Not something social networks are currently giving us time for.

Which doesn’t mean that in the future we couldn’t change what they do to us, now does it?


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