Thinking, not replying

In a new piece about climate policy, Robinson Meyer writes:

In fact, Aklin and Mildenberger say, climate change is a distributive-conflict problem—a term that was new to me and that I will now explain. In essence, climate policy restructures the economy, creating new economic winners and losers. [Etc.]

I nearly gasped at “a term that was new to me and that I will now explain”. Consider a few things:

  • How easy it would have been to omit. “Climate change is a distributive-conflict problem. In essence, climate policy restructures the economy…” Pretty normal.

  • How it transforms Rob from “explainer” to “thinker-alongside”.

  • How bloggy it sounds! Can you detect that, too? I know not all blogs—not even most—were models of “thinking in public”; the blogosphere was thick with pedantry. At the same time, there was something about the format that seemed to invite a generous, generative approach.

I think this struck me because it connects to a few other impressions that have been swirling in my head lately, unattached to any hypothesis or grand formulation; just… swirling. They include:

  • The utter frustration of having things explained to you online that you already know. Mansplaining is of course the canonical variation, but there are plenty more, including some that are entirely innocent—and only barely more tolerable!

  • The observation that this occurs most often on Twitter; I think that’s due mostly to the pure reflexive ease of replying there. But the extra twist, perhaps, is the way those replies attach themselves remora-like to your original message; splinters that remain embedded in your palm.

  • My estimation that somewhere between 50% and 85% of all the bad feelings produced by Twitter boil down to “being spoken to in a way you don’t want to be spoken to”—a category that includes not only the straightforwardly abusive and the classically explain-y but the inappropriately familiar, the joylessly sarcastic, etc., etc.

When a person “thinks in public”, I don’t think they are looking for immediate responses; certainly not if those responses “answer the question” and shut down the line of inquiry, but/and maybe not even if they are generous and generative. “Yes, and” is great, but, like… let it sit for a minute!

Blogs had comments, of course, some of them as easy to produce as Twitter’s replies. But a blog’s comments section bloomed in specific response to its subject, its voice; comments didn’t (usually?) get pitched in from elsewhere. I don’t know; maybe we can lay Twitter’s bad feelings alongside everything else at the feet of context collapse.

I don’t mean to bask in the imagined greatness of the High Blogging Era; forget about blogs. Rather, I want to register how surprising it is that so many of the platforms that dominate the internet today are so bad at this; that they so reliably push their participants, in ways subtle and not, towards knowing it all already.

Maybe I’m just interested in ~discursive networks~ that look less like this—

A drawing on a 3x5 card of a small network with the nodes all pointing directly at one another

—and more like this:

A drawing on a 3x5 card of a small network with some of the nodes pointing roughly, but not directly, at one another; and other nodes, meanwhile, spiraling off into space

Why did “talking past one another” develop such a bad reputation? Think of how nice it is to have a conversation walking alongside someone; or in a car, one of you driving, the other in the passenger seat. Both of you looking outward, probably at different things. Both of your minds roaming the same way.

Maybe I want a version of Twitter without any replies at all; a version on which only subtweets are permitted, a network of implications, reformulations, bank shots…

Think, for example, of the book review that itemizes “wot I liked and wot I didn’t” vs. the one that uses the book as a jumping-off point to explore new territory.

Considering where I started—a scrap of language in a piece about climate policy—this post might itself be an example, for better and for worse. That’s me at the bottom of the network, spinning up a quick spiral before my second coffee.

April 2021, Berkeley

This post is part of a loose series:

  1. The master tapes
  2. Many subtle channels
  3. Thinking, not replying (this post)

You can explore my other blog posts.

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