“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … As if the main object were to talk fast, not sensibly.” – Henry David Thoreau
This comment from Thoreau’s Walden was made more than a century and a half ago, talking about telegraph communication … and yet 160 years later, with the rise of a million means of instant communication, it’s just as appropriate.
Just because we have instant communication doesn’t mean we should do it. Sometimes it makes more sense to talk less, to deliberate, and to communicate more important ideas.
Sure, being a part of a network of constant flowing information can be a thrill, and can be useful. But we are a part of dozens of such networks, and with information and communication flying all around our heads, like a thousand buzzing insects, it can be hard to catch your breath and realize that most of it means nothing.
Let’s remember the words of Macbeth, hundreds of years ago:
“it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Step back, and think about the importance of what we are doing. Is it so urgent to send off and respond to dozens of emails? Is it worth our time to participate in instant messaging, when we don’t have much to say? Will the world end if we don’t stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the blogging world, or on Digg, or on Twitter? And do we really want to know what people are doing, all the time?
What does it all mean? And is it worth saying, and listening to?
These are the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves, on a daily basis. I’m not saying that I’m perfect: I participate in these networks as much as anyone else. But I am saying that the focus these days seems to be too much on finding new ways to communicate … and not enough on finding important things to say … and making sure that what we’re saying is worth saying.
To that end, I’d like to make five suggestions:
1. Step back. It’s vital that we take a step back from what we’re doing, and what we’re communicating and participating in, every now and then. And more now than then. Without pulling our heads out of the information stream, we can’t get any kind of perspective. How far do we step back and for how long? That’s an individual question I can’t answer, but I think we should step back far enough that we can see the entirety of the network (whether that’s email, blogs, IM or whatever) … and can actually see how the networks relate to each other … and can actually see the relation between these networks of networks and the rest of the world. Only then can we see what’s important.
2. Cut back. It truly isn’t critical that we communicate so much, and participate so much. Find ways to cut back so that you’re not in such a rush anymore. Do email and the other communications in your life less, send less, and read less.
3. Communicate only the essential. What is it that we really want to communicate? What’s truly important? What should we be saying and doing, as opposed to what we have been saying and doing? When you step back and figure these things out, you can learn to communicate just the essential stuff.
4. Learn to let go of the noise. There is a lot of noise in our world. More than we’re willing to admit to ourselves. Let it drop away. Sometimes it’s difficult, because we’re so used to doing it, and when we hear noise enough it no longer sounds like noise. But noise it is, if we learn to focus on the essential. Life will go on without it!
5. Find new ways to communicate the essential, not the noise. As we find new ways to communicate (and new ways seem to pop up every day), let’s not focus on ways to communicate faster, or more, or more frenetically … let’s not find ways to connect with more people, or increase our network … instead, let’s find ways to communicate only what’s essential, to cut down on the noise, to figure out what we should be communicating and not what we can communicate, to reach only those we need to reach and no more. Let that be the focus of our new technology, and let it serve us, and not the other way around.