I was very close to remarking on the failure of brevity in the years of the Trump presidency.
Can you imagine a more pristine case for the destruction of civil discourse than Twitter in the hands of the most powerful agent in the free world?
But then I realized that this was not the whole story, and the truth as always is far more complex. So I thought I would sit here and type out some of what I believe to be the case for and against brevity, particularly in writing.
Let’s acknowledge the intense moving and shaking that has occurred on the side of brevity over this century.
In a small amount of time, we’ve seen brevity take over as a more profound impetus for entry into art and discourse than we might realize.
The Rise of Brevity
Instead of sitting for hours at a time for a long meal where we eat and share our time with family or friends, we find ourselves grabbing a banana before rushing out the door. We eat snacks at our desk, or we sneak a meal in while answering emails. Our diets have fluctuated to these snacks to the point where we feel awful for having so many calories in such light weight foods.
We believed to the detriment of music artists everywhere that “information wants to be free.” Illegal downloading of music by tracks has mostly destroyed the old idea of the concept album. Save for a few incredibly successful artists who are blessed with the ability to do the long form record, many chase the enticing bait that new billing models like Spotify offer. Musicians spend 24 hours in one location on tour before racing to other countries, performing as much as they can while their bodies can still take it.
Snapchat turned the image into an emotional conversation, rather than an artifact to be spooled over or considered. The detail and the space around the subject has been jettisoned for a quick byte, and after the behavioral dopamine hit, we send a reply.
And then there are other social media influences in the form of Facebook or Twitter. Twitter’s role in brevity is so obvious that I will not utter it here, but Facebook’s use of likes, and of scrolling infinitely (co-opted by other major apps like Instagram and Reddit) has us searching for new information without fully understanding what we looked at before. It is a mind melting strategy that has, largely, succeeded.
There seems to be a growing consensus on the role of social media in the degradation of civil discourse. After over a decade since the iPhone in 2007, smart technologies have been innovating not just in the hardware space, but in the algorithmic software space, to the point where AI predicts certain tendencies in our behavior in order to send us further into an echo chamber we did not realize existed.
This could not come without atomizing each of our behaviors into little byte-sized tendencies. It was important, in hindsight, that our actions on a phone be discreet and individualized so they could be recorded and categorized. Clicks, taps, scrolls, how long we stare at an image or video, all of these things are similar to the saccades our eyes make when we read books, but these particular decisions are all made explicit on the screen, an entity entirely in control by an Other.
Surely this would reach a breaking point, and though I am still unsure about whether there is a 1:1 relationship between social media and the political unrest occurring in the United States in 2020, I think it is easy to believe in some theoretical reasons why this is the case.
Jaron Lanier’s metaphor between Wikipedia and something like Facebook news is the best way to describe this.
When you click on Wikipedia and search for an article, what you see is what everybody else sees. Wikipedia acts necessarily as an information commons, where we have an established description of a particular person, place, or thing that is agreed upon.
But Google or Facebook do not operate that way. Instead, the habits around you affect what you see in your autocomplete. These particular small phrases, and the actions you take afterward, are different to what other people see when they search a topic as unnecessarily contentious as, say, climate change.
The problem with brevity under this context is the homonymic slide I have been doing between bite and byte. Under the rule of the internet, the ten-minute YouTube video is an attempt to see whether you will invest your time and become easier by some algorithm to measure and predict.
I do not necessarily want to go down this road too hard for conspiracy theory sake. Many of the people who designed these products and systems probably had no idea that brevity could be leveraged in this way. Indeed, brevity existed as a way to leverage the slow as hell dial up internet we all started with. Text was easiest to load, but eventually images had slightly larger file sizes that were somewhat manageable. Once fiber internet allowed us to use light to transport information, the only bottleneck was the monopolistic companies involved in telecommunications who actively avoided burying fiber lines into the ground. So brevity may have been how we started, but as technology grows there is less and less of an excuse.
It was probably no accident that Marcel Proust began publishing his gargantuan In Search of Lost Time in the throes of disease and technological upheaval. The industrial revolution exacerbated many of the problems of racism and xenophobia, and it disenfranchised skilled workers and apprentices once again to the cheap and repetitive products of the factory. Alienation and habituation were two concepts that Proust worked with in his series. Just the mention of his work is a statement in and of itself: if you want to understand anything in this world, be prepared to go deeply into it.
While I have not read William T. Vollman, the man lives off of this premise to the extreme, producing multi-volume works that are a collection of technical research, on-the-ground journalism, and rhetorical argument, in order to produce as clearly as possible the feeling or atmosphere of what it meant to live under current ideas of violence or climate change.
My personal favorite is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle which I have read and used for my Master’s Thesis. In it, Karl Ove ends with a profound stance on individuality to oppose the likes of propaganda artists like Adolf Hitler. His books are a statement as well: that the individual is a large and deep well, and beyond the easy labeling that social media does as a way to pretend understanding, they really do it to sell a product.
Unfortunately, while there is power in brevity, its wittiness has been bought and sold for profit, and its phrases have been shouted out in rage factories like Facebook and Twitter.
One of my deepest concerns is in the young as they struggle in this time of distance learning and coronavirus. People who spent a lot of their time scrolling on phones now have even more time to atomize by clicking and liking and posting and commenting. These are not necessarily bad things, but the chances of their behavior to be modified is much higher given the fact that they have far less self-control to manage these devices. It is no secret that makers and creators of social media keep their children from using it, for the sole reason that it prevents the young from cultivating a deep and rich identity separated from commodity clicking.
Are there moments when brevity succeeds? I think poetry has the opportunity to produce a kind of gamma wave response in our brains, the kind of cleansing mode that opens up our perceptions to a greater world steeped in language.
But honestly, how many kids are reading poetry?
How many kids are reading at all remains to be determined. Given the flattening choice between a phone and a book, both of which are comparable in size and heft, it’s no secret how much easier it is to choose an unlimited amount of information, as opposed to a singular volume that forces you to take it in without clicking, without scrolling. There are only the saccades of the eye movements, and only the turn of the page.
I worry that brevity is used as explanation rather than tool. Consider the phrase of a yogi suggesting, “You can always be kinder.” That is the kind of brevity that reminds us of what it takes to be a sound human being, and it carries with it a depth of experience that few can articulate as clearly and bluntly as this meditating monk.
But brevity can and often has been a mantra for more violent ends. “Crooked Hillary” is one that comes to mind, “#Pizzagate” another. If left unchecked in the mind, brevity runs the risk of allowing an intellectual lockdown, where people use information as justification for their actions, rather than as a gatekeeper for further research.
The technology is only going to get faster, the briefest videos even more so, the most cliche and trite thoughts more truncated and more savory, while our brains, as ancient and slow-moving as they are, will continue to anxiously keep up.
Has brevity failed us? Perhaps to label all of its wittiness as missing the mark is not quite the answer. Perhaps something more accurate would be to say, “We failed brevity.” We lacked the self-control to use the bite-sized healthily, and instead used it to drive ourselves and each other crazy.
There are the insane in the yard who step over cracks in the tile. “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll fall and break your back.” The charge of the sane and the insane is clear: careful where you step.