Milan Kundera and the ostriches.

I think Twitter is stupid, and I’m pretty sure Milan Kundera agrees with me.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina, a Czech emigré living in the West, is haunted by a memory of some ostriches she saw on a visit to a zoo:

There were six of them. When they saw Tamina and Hugo, they ran right up to them. All bunched together near the wire fence, they stretched out their long necks, stared, and opened and closed their broad, flat beaks. They opened and closed them feverishly, at an incredible speed, as if taking part in a debate and trying to outtalk one another, but the beaks were hopelessly mute and did not make the slightest sound.

Tamina, who is trying to convince her young boyfriend to return to Prague and retrieve some personal papers of hers, dreams about the ostriches, sees them as a portent, wonders whether they are trying to warn her about something. But Kundera has some disillusioning news for us:

Tamina will never know what they came to tell her. But I do. They did not come to warn or scold or threaten her. They are not at all concerned with her. They came, each one of them, to tell her about themselves. About how they ate, how they slept, how they ran up to the fence, and what they saw on the other side. … There they are, standing face to face with Tamina, telling her their stories, all at the same time, belligerently, pressingly, aggressively, because there is nothing more important than what they want to tell her.

Kundera, writing in 1980, peers into the future and sees ostriches everywhere. He describes the condition he calls graphomania, which he defines as the desire “to have a public of unknown readers” for one’s writing. One of the triggers for mass graphomania, he theorises, is “an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual”. He continues:

If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing … has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.

As Kundera sees it, people aren’t that interested in one another’s lives to begin with:

You know what it’s like when two people start a conversation. First one of them does all the talking, the other one breaks in with “That’s just like me, I…” and goes on talking about himself until his partner finds a chance to say “That’s just like me, I…” … All man’s life among men is nothing more than a battle for the ears of others.

This reminds me of my company’s fruitless attempts to use Twitter as a marketing tool. As I’ve described before, I work for a software company, and not long ago my employers decided it was time for us to climb on the Twitter bandwagon. They assigned me the task of “tweeting” our “followers” once or twice a day. But what was I supposed to tweet about?

I wound up spending fifteen or twenty minutes every morning browsing the web for stories on reputation management that might be interesting to our followers. When I found a story, I’d log on to our account and tweet the link and a brief description of the story, then log off again. Total time spent on Twitter each day: thirty seconds.

Now, my company’s Twitter account has three or four hundred followers, and we in turn are following three or four hundred people. Sometimes I’d take a few seconds to skim the recent tweets from the people we’re following. They were deadly boring. Most of them were doing the same thing I was doing – generating noise, not attempting to take part in any kind of conversation. How can you have a conversation with three or four hundred people anyway?

After a couple weeks of this routine, I quietly let it fall off, fractionally reducing the volume of pointless verbiage out there. But I shouldn’t be too smug. Twitter might not be for me, but I produce an equal amount of pointless verbiage in blog form.

As someone who generates an awful lot of words while having very little to say, I am troubled by Kundera’s prophecy for the consequences of mass graphomania:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

M.

A few weeks ago on the Spokesmonster blog I explained why Twitter isn’t for me.

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2 Responses to “Milan Kundera and the ostriches.”


  1. 1 Luba M. March 3, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Very interesting. Kundera has great insights on the repercussions of different technologies on human behavior. But he also shows that this behavior is already imbedded in human nature before technologies such has photography, for example, intensify them…

  2. 2 Rob Schackne May 18, 2014 at 12:15 am

    Dear Michael,

    “Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”

    Kundera. Nice.

    How pointless communication is if no one cares. As if when we post and tweet and facebook and email, we are merely watching an entertainment take place — with the implication that since someone’s message to us is unsolicited, we can (or should) ignore it.

    Don’t know is anonymousification is (or probably shouldn’t be) a word, but…

    (Cf. the US Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing that an anonymous 911 tip may give police probable cause in an arrest.)

    Cheers,
    Rob


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