Lori Anderson: Face-to-face always better than living the i-life
EVEN though all information is available at the touch of a button, it is nice that people still choose meet up.
We ARE all living the ‘i-life’ these days. Our every move and each thought is beamed through the electronic prism of our iPhones, blogs, iPads, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, but have they not also become the bricks of our electronic prison?
Land lines are dying out, the letter which was usurped by the phone call and then e-mail has now been degraded to mutilated cypher text-speak.
A sense of community is obsolete to many of us. We are living in an electronic hermitage, making minute by minute offerings to our e-gods.
Yet the fact remains that we all have a strong need for discourse and social interaction, as well as a desire for that warm sense of belonging. Studies have repeatedly shown that a lack of community is one of the biggest contributors to depression, and while that shimmering chorus of friends and followers we carry around on our phones may act as a transitory alternative, can it really be considered an adequate substitute for face-to-face, eye-to-eye, handshake-to-handshake contact?
I’m not so sure, which is why I take heart in the return of the salon, which for centuries has drawn like-minded people in discourse that not only elevates the spirit but the intellect, too.
The crushed velvet chaise lounge, draped curtains and softly flickering candles may have been replaced by plastic chairs and Madonna-style head microphones, but the spirit of the 16th century salon lives on.
The French defined the salon, which took its name from the Italian word “sala” meaning a large reception hall, where it was frequently held, as “aut delectare aut prodesse est” – a place where the conversation was “either to please or to educate”.
In Scotland there is an appetite for both as the ‘salon’ has recently been revived. The publishers, Canongate, have clearly listened to Robert Louis Stevenson who said: “An event strikes root and grows into a legend when it has happened amongst congenial surroundings” as they have decided to host their ‘Canongate Talks’ with authors such as Richard Holloway and Jonah Lehrer in, as they explained on their website, “prestigious and beautiful venues across the city”.
The former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh dissected his former Christian faith at the Royal Physicians Hall. The most recent event featured Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, who educated his audience on why constantly aspiring to happiness was making us miserable and why we should, instead, get a little bit more comfy with uncertainty and failure. A little bit more Eeyore and a lot less Pollyanna.
Following suit is the Mayfield Salisbury Church in Edinburgh which this autumn will host six mind-expanding talks on the subject of science, reason and religion.
And August will, once again, see many of the finest minds and purveyors of the most polished sentences, gathering at Charlotte Square for the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Last year’s attendance may have dipped slightly from the previous year, down 200,000 to 190,000 with the blame laid at the sodden door of the inclement weather (will the sun break through this year?), but given the huge increase in literary festivals across Scotland, interest and attendance at these spas for the spirit and mind is seen to be on the up.
A fortnight ago, Edinburgh played host to the TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) Global, annual conference where, over four days, dozens of speakers, who had honed each gesture and stressed syllable for months, were given 14 minutes to make the speech of their life with the prospect of a standing ovation (a one in two chance, according to an article in this week’s The New Yorker) and global fame on the organisation’s webcast.
Yet what is interesting is that when TED decided to release free videos on the web of its talks it did not dampen the appetite for their live events but acted as an accelerant despite the higher prices.
TED does not come cheap, with tickets for the annual events coming in at roughly £5,000, although its spin-off, TEDx events, organised by ‘TED fellows’ who receive a week’s training and promise to adhere to the company’s strict rules, and which have also been held in Edinburgh, are a much more reasonable £20.
So the question is why, at a time when so much information, education and entertainment is but a click of a button away, is there a soaring demand for physical engagement? Why do we still wish to go and listen to eloquently expressed ideas when it is easier to sit in front of a computer screen and watch them?
I think the reason is that, at heart, we wish to be participants rather than merely distant spectators, physical actors rather than silent ghosts trapped on the other end of a glass screen. Then there is the warm sense of community to be found in the audience at a lecture, reading, talk or debate. There is the casual conversation in the queue and the opportunity to ask questions of those we admire and, for a few minutes, to enjoy their focused attention. The ‘i-life’ can be wonderful in moderation, but we need more.
I find it comforting that in our digital era of graphics and footage, projections and animation, that we continue to be drawn in respectable numbers to a form of education unchanged in millennia, one as familiar to Socrates as Bill Gates: the salon or the lecture.
What I so enjoy is that whatever we have learned we will still exit the venue with a head full of whys and wherefores and am I alone in thinking that there is a sense of wonder in where all those dancing question marks might eventually lead?
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west