I started reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People this week simply because I’d never read her, and many friends had recommended her. In terms of the stack of books sitting here waiting to be read, reading about end of apartheid seemed like a useful filter on the world. To read meant to look away from work (which was easy, as I was on vacation), but also to look away from media, especially social media. Gordimer’s writing demands attention. She’s like if John le Carré wrote about interpersonal relations — and if he did so at a tenth the speed and several times the level of detail. Both are writers of, simultaneously, micro and macro politics, of the personal and the global. Both explore nuance and codes within communication. But she does so across impenetrable emotional voids and with zero interest in titillation.
In turning away from Twitter, I entered the deep emotional grasses of her book, and found amid the narrative strains two parents. They’re lost in many ways, foremost without a working radio. They fight over the device, searching for stations, checking “wave lengths.” More to the point, the radio works, but the stations don’t. There are no signals to be received. This is both fact and metaphor. All along, during my reading, my social media is out of control. I take breaks from it to read about the dead radio. Then I take breaks from the dead radio of Gordimer’s book to take in the fire hose of our current moment. I alternate. I think about taking a social media break, which I’ve done on occasion, but this seems like a time to be aware, to be aware of being aware. I’m intrigued by mediated awareness, I suppose.
The most quoted tweet I had was years ago, in the Arab Spring. At the time, Twitter was more about consumer goods and personal expression. I’d mentioned how “I used to look at Twitter to see what tech gadget has been released, and now it’s to see what country is on fire.” Or something along those lines. Anyhow, it’s pretty clear which country is on fire now. I might turn off Twitter, but of course when I choose to turn it, or the radio, on both would function. If the dead radio in July’s People suggests one form of broken interpersonal communication, what is the hyperactive Twitter a metaphor for? More to the point, the radio in July’s People seems dead because there are no signals. Social media seems to work because there are signals. The main thing I’ve come to appreciate is that something can function and still be broken.