A writer friend and I were having a conversation about writing – and about a particular book idea that she had –when it struck me that she and I almost never do what we were doing so pleasurably in that moment — talk about writing — even though it’s a hugely important aspect of each of our lives, and one of the most important things we have in common.
Why should this be so? It’s partly a result of the guardedness that creative people carry around, the need to stake out your own space where you can make something of your own. But it isn’t limited to creatives or introverts: in my former investment banking firm, we used to refer to our areas of specialization as “silos” and would try to think of ways to break them down and allow cross-pollination of ideas. This went beyond the usual “thinking outside the box” about a particular problem; we dimly perceived that our comfort zones of expertise were confining and commercially dysfunctional and we tried to make them more porous. We were rarely successful. Life inside a silo of preoccupation, specialization, bias, or shyness can be comforting. The problem arises when we forget we’re inside one.
There are actual physical silos standing just outside our little Ohio town – tall metal cylinders built to contain a lot of grain on a small footprint – and they are an apt metaphor for our psychic self-confinement: dark inside, containing something homogeneous, and escapable only by deliberate extraction.
Most of us grew up believing that technology would make individual isolation purely optional: jet travel and telecommunication would neutralize distance; the Internet would empower collaboration and democratize knowledge. And some of this has happened.
But technology has also destroyed large tracts of common experience and replaced them with highly individualized pockets of perception. Not too long ago, when there were only three broadcast television networks and the idea of running a wire to your house to watch TV seemed silly, the entire nation tuned in to watch the nightly news, moon landings, presidential inaugurations, and Bonanza. Now our only universally shared video experience is the Super Bowl (with Game of Thrones perhaps a close second).
The Internet is the primary enabler of this atomization of experience, for it offers nearly endless and nearly effortless choice, and when we are allowed to choose, rather than be randomly forced up against people and ideas different from our own, we tend, over time, to choose what comforts. We pick the news feed that reinforces our political bias, the up-channel cable show that focuses on our pet interest of the moment, the app that connects us in some clever new way to people very much like ourselves. It is possible in this way to construct, gradually and even unconsciously, out of a multitude of inputs masquerading as objective information, a hermetically-sealed bubble of self-reinforcing perception. We each build our silo and climb eagerly inside.
Of course, people have always done this – subscribed to certain magazines, ignoring others, selecting friends with viewpoints similar to our own – but the building blocks of self-confinement have proliferated with the advent of social media, blogging, podcasts, and online journalism. The mesh is much finer now, the warp and weft of our personal silos much denser.
There are still some places where it’s hard to build silos, because they have randomness and diversity built into them: big cities and universities come to mind. Perhaps for this reason, these places are often disturbing and we can’t wait to get out of them, but if we’re willing to visit for a while, and put aside our handhelds while we’re there, they can remind us that an abject inability to dictate the terms on which we encounter other people and ideas can be an energizing and even ennobling condition.
But even in New York these days you can walk down a street and not encounter a single person who isn’t head-down and fixated on the small computer in their hand. And even universities are under pressure to assuage the intellectual friction that gives them life and grow silos – they call them “safe spaces” – for each and every predilection, self-perceived victim, and interest group. “Trigger warnings” must be issued in advance of any possible encounter with the world outside your silo. This flight from troubling experience is the direct result of the unfettered freedom to choose – and freedom to avoid – that the modern college student has grown up with and that now, if unchecked, will ensure the further political balkanization of our society, and our future as a race of intellectual xenophobes.
Bigotry comes in many forms beyond the crude, obvious bigotry of racism or sexism. The forces of atomization and isolation that are at work around us are not always benign instruments of endless choice or brave expressions of our individuality, but potential threats to community, and we need to actively resist them. The very word “community” has been hijacked to refer to a virtually-connected horde of subscribers to this or that social media website. Twitter feeds and talk radio purvey abstracted, impersonal speech from within silos of preconception: we preach to the converted while talking past each other. How much harder it is to persuade, in person, or to seek out and give audience to opposing points of view. Yet that is what it means to live in an actual, functioning community.
In that kind of community, you sit down over coffee or a stiff drink and have a serious discussion with someone who profoundly disagrees with you about abortion, or gay marriage, or Donald Trump, or gun control, or the prospects for the Cubs making the World Series this year. You try sincerely to understand their opinion, even as you acknowledge that you can’t accept it.
In that kind of community, better still, you take a walk with someone you know who is really good at something you’ve never done or wish you could do better – writing or wrestling; sculpture or Sudoku – and ask them to share a bit of their expertise with you. You talk about something you know you both love but somehow never get around to acknowledging to one another. Enthusiasm is motivating; a shared enthusiasm is galvanizing. You might even ask someone to teach you something you don’t know and haven’t a hope of learning on your own. Short of love itself, there is nothing greater to offer or receive, and the high, shiny wall of your personal silo – and mine– will be a little lower afterwards.