Gosh, what is the world coming to when even David Godine has a blog? Although I notice he has not yet contributed many bon mots himself. Perhaps he is the man behind the curtain? Perhaps he is waiting for Godot? Be that as it may, most of us seem eager to dive into any new means of communication. Blogs are just one more glowing ember in the sticky magma of human communication. It seems we can’t help it.
Remember life before cell phones? We walked off airplanes to where our friends patiently waited, each of us waving happily as soon as we spotted one another. Now we call immediately upon touchdown, “I’m here. The plane’s just landed. I’ll call again when I’m on the jetway.” And we do, often with a follow-up of “I’m just passing the Starbucks. I’m wearing my red sweatshirt. See you soon!”
With this GPS mode of communication we alert everyone to our current position. “I’m waiting in line at the movies.” “I’m just leaving the grocery store.” In essence, it’s a message with no real expectation of or need for feedback. Even if it’s not broadcast in the technical sense (as Twitter is), its intention is one-way.
Many so-called conversations are really just a series of proclamations that go out into the air in this kind of parallel fashion, never touching one another.
In database engineering language, this type of uniflow communication from one source file to multiple recipient files is called a “one-to-many relationship,” and is very useful for the sorts of things that databases do. But in the human environment, although highly seductive for the “one,” it bores the “many” and ultimately it’s not useful for solving big problems.
Far better is a “many-to-many relationship,” where talk eddies back and forth among many people. The caveat, of course, is the inherent confusion and frustration whenever differing points of view rub together. That’s why a patient and alert mind is required in many-to-many conversations.
One of the most brilliant and sustained examples of this sort of conversation occurred repeatedly in a real-time, face-to-face Concord MA neighborhood in the middle of the 19th century. Several families lived and worked together, sharing babysitting and canned fruit, carpentry and farming, ideas and love. Their potluck dinners brought together incredible intellectual firepower. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his wife Lidian, Bronson Alcott and his wife Abba, their friend Henry Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody knew the value of growing ideas communally, of agreeing and disagreeing, but rarely walking away.
Their talk was rooted in the issues of their day — abolition, democracy, education, poverty, justice — and they also tackled blue-sky questions like “what are the responsibilities of being human?” and “what is my relationship to nature?”
These neighbors knew that a many-to-many conversation which encouraged good will and keen vision in the face of disagreement is one of the best ways to bring in a useful harvest. A crop of good ideas will never sprout if we pretend the weedy ones don’t exist.
[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email]