Twitter Ontology

A picture of someone taking a picture of a friend in front of protesters in front of the White House.

You know how people nowadays, when traveling especially, need to take a picture of everything just to be sure they’ve experienced it? Maybe they actually look at all those pictures. Or some of them. But isn’t the driving force much more that sneaking feeling at the moment of capture, a dizziness with experience that makes one want to plant it solidly in the wet-but-drying concrete of a digital camera, consequence-free, yet consequence-ridden?

I remember, especially, going to see the Mayan pyramids in Guatemala and Mexico almost four years ago. At the time I still made a point of not carrying a camera and drawing pictures whenever I saw something I really needed to experience. The extra time it took to draw provided the opportunity to sit there and watch how people encountered these un-encounter-able, incomprehensible ancient things. Click, then keep on walking. It is finished, as Jesus once said. The great event, captured in a little box, freeing the person to move on to the next one. But with all this great power of capturing we have, in brilliant color, 10 megapixels of detail, and optional video, is the eroding ontology of the unaided senses. The things seen, heard, and felt without the camera become less real, less sure. Right?

Certainly, praised be Twitter. Compared to the camera, it has got almost zero bandwith to show for itself. Yet still, with 140 lines of text, it has the power to define an ontology—a theory of being—all its own.

Is something real if it hasn’t been put on Twitter? It sounds like a crazy question, but after only a few weeks tweeting I have caught myself, in the thrall of experience, feeling the urge to tweet it. The moment was too much on its own. It would build something, inside my skin, that I didn’t know what to do with except broadcast. Is this merely the urge to self-expression, something as ancient as the ancients? Or something new and frenetic, something twitchy and pathetic?

Twitter and its 140 lines are a visceral (or anti-visceral) reminder that we cling to these technological prosthetics of experience not because they make experience richer but because they make it more manageable. They reduce the bandwidth, even while increasing the traffic. How many times, as the years go by, I have felt the need to repeat this conservative, cranky passage to myself! The god Thamus, as reported by Socrates, as reported by Plato in Phaedrus 274C-275B, on the god Thoth’s invention of writing:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use of their own memory within them.  You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Okay, you’ve read your Socrates, now you can watch the filmstrip. It’s funny.





6 responses to “Twitter Ontology”

  1. Quentin Kirk

    Great observations.
    I notice that many young people rather than ordering their social life by belonging to a religious society, the writing club, photography club, science or dance or art club, they improvise their social life by twittering or cell phoning. My impression is that this technological fix does not work at all.

  2. Isn’t there another disconnect? It’s the effect of the effect of experience. There’s not just one remove; there has to be two. But I don’t get it. Isn’t this all a good thing? Don’t we want people to be blind to things? Keep the masses down and all, etc. etc.?

    It’s just too easy to be cynical and point out the shortcomings of modern society. The flip of the drip is that it allows an educated minority to rule, and to argue against that is sort of arguing against the history of man’s politics and such (to make a really bald and funny statement, hah!).

    I say let people twitter and photograph things as long as they remain quiet and content.

  3. Quentin—to be fair, networks like Twitter doesn’t so much replace such in-person clubs as reduce their urgency, even while actually facilitating them. They’ve let to some fascinating encounters and connections in my experience. It’s a mixed bag. Just like writing (in the Plato passage—there is something of legitimate value to be gained, but something also gets lost.

  4. Hi, I have been using twitter constanly and regularly since two years ago & I do think that an aforistic use of twitter might be useful to define the main traces of an ontology. Think about how Nietzsche needed to write down & register the intensities he was experiencing, as we know, most of his work is aforistic.

    But you´ve stated a question that should be taken a bit seriously. “Is something real if it hasn’t been put on Twitter?” But if its not, then it remains virtual, like a thought, like a wish or desire that isnot meant to be fulfill through its own actualization, instead will remain like something to be repressed reactively, like a blind spot maybe, or even a recurrence that points back out to our own microfascisms. Somethings to do, somethings already done, doing things on the course of their own action.. do they need to be published so we shall obtain a feedback benefit, which is not always filling an absense but complementing whats is already there, perhaps as a sort of territory that we have been holding to?

    Experimenting such feedback retribution is to connect ourselves into a virtual circuit that can be complementary in both negative and positive ways. All things that are published are meant to be real, publishing things is the way to cristalize them as meaningful tiny weenie realization. Something is always passing that is also happening, something that escapes continuosly from ourselves and from our own activities: they dont deserve anything but a board, a placard that announces something like “this self is under-construction” (digitally, socially, virtually). Twitter has nothing to do with a lack memory & it is not just the simple urge to self-expression. At the same time, it is surely something as ancient as the ancients, new and frenetic, twitchy and pathetic.

  5. […] Twitter Ontology […]

  6. minhjan

    Lost in Twitters Translation? Check out this funny video about twittering: