Embracing the silent treatment in an overconnected world

A conversation with Communication lecturer Dr Ethan Plaut on exploring silence in an increasingly digitally dominant world.

In 2018, Ethan and his family moved from Silicon Valley to Auckland where he took up a position in the Faculty’s new Communication major.

When we meet, he has just finished a 10-day silent Vipassanā retreat about an hour north of Auckland. Part of the reason for this was to practise what he teaches – going ‘offline’ in a hyper-connected world. This is something Ethan knows a lot about, having done his doctoral research on it and now teaching a postgraduate course on ‘Communication Excess and Avoidance’.

“In that particular course, we look at ways in which communication can be too much and also the ways in which people carve out silences for themselves, and not just from digital media. I put it in a deeper historical context around everything from monks who took a vow of silence to lovers giving each other the silent treatment to people who abstain from voting and other forms of political participation.”

There are lots of ways in which we cut ourselves off for better and worse.

“I am an overconnected person. I am someone with an exhausting email inbox. So when we come to a break between semesters I might just disappear for 10 days into the woods. It’s not the only way to do it. Some people take a weekly digital Sabbath whether they’re Jewish or not. There are lots of ways of carving out times and spaces for oneself to have quiet, such as no screens in the bedroom, but for me 10 days off the grid felt like a pretty good idea.”

Ethan is not new to meditation, but he says that this silent retreat was one of the more challenging ‘offline’ experiences he’s had.

“I hadn’t anticipated the amount of physical pain that would be involved. I knew that sitting on the floor for hours at a time motionless would be uncomfortable but I had gone in thinking that distraction would be incidental.”  

Instead, it’s actually core to the work that you’re doing – to work through, transcend that suffering, and be equanimous in the face of all sensations.

In August 2019, Ethan spoke at the University’s Raising the Bar event on ‘The Business of Digital Surveillance and Propaganda’. Media ethics, digital journalism and propaganda are areas of research that Ethan is particularly interested in, although he acknowledges that they are constantly shifting targets.

“The ethics class I’m teaching has guest lecturers from the Māori Data Sovereignty Network, a recent doctoral graduate from engineering, someone from politics, and someone from philosophy. I mean you want the idea for the course to be ambitious, but a course about ethics and technology in this moment feels overwhelming, and not just in its scope but because it’s just such a fast-moving target.

Over the past two years, investigative journalists have exposed Cambridge Analytica’s extraction and misuse of Facebook’s personal data. While these kinds of areas sit in Ethan’s wheelhouse, he also thinks the story is longer and more complicated than the public understands.

“That’s obviously a popular story, that the likes of Cambridge Analytica collected all this information and were able to target individuals, manipulating their quirks of psychology at a very granular level. But the evidence is ambiguous at best on whether that ‘microtargeting’ was actually effective. What we do know is that, at any given moment you are online, your presence can be monetised twice over – both as information about you is collected and as information is pushed at you by the attention economy.

“All this data that’s being collected on one level is very useful. But on another level it is very unsettling for a number of reasons. So trying to kind of pull that curtain back a little bit and teach students what’s going on, I think that’s important.”

Ethan sees that social media has its uses but wonders what it is replacing, which he doesn’t believe we have a good answer to yet.

“It has just become like infrastructure. So it gets to a point where any individual can refuse to use social media, but it’s a bit like boycotting the public transportation system or the water system or something like that. You can do it, but if you want to do your dishes, it’s going to be hard. And so it just becomes a kind of de facto requirement in the sense that if you’re not online, it’s just harder to move through the world.

“We really need to look at the upsides and downsides of a given technology or situation in order to give a meaningful evaluation of whether it’s helping us to make a better life for ourselves.

“We have a diverse student body, which is wonderful. People come to my ethics class with different base assumptions about what a good life might look like and how we should get there. If you look at a lot of ethics courses in general, especially technology ethics, they have tended to come from a pretty Western perspective. So I’m working really hard in this course to decentre the Western tradition.”

Ethan developed a number of communication courses at Stanford University during his time there, one of which he has particularly fond memories of.

“I used to teach an undergraduate course about silence, which included a number of guest lecturers. I used to – and I feel like this is one of my greatest coups as a teacher – have a guest lecture from a mime. In the beginning it’s just someone miming, and the students were of course a little freaked out about it, but they always came around by the end, they were all moving around, throwing imaginary balls, learning about gestural communication. That was a really, really fun one.

Actually my silence course was a public speaking class, because I’m the guy who thinks that’s funny. I’m like, I’m going to get the mime as a guest speaker for my public speaking course!

On the topic of silence, we venture back to his 10-day silent Vipassanā experience. I ask Ethan what he feels he learned from it.

“I came away thinking that I could be more kind and there are some specific people to whom I maybe could be more kind that I thought about more than others. I thought a lot about the women in my life. I thought about my students and just different ways of trying to always receive people as they are. Just being patient and accepting of them in all their complexities, of which I could never be aware.”

This article was first published in the 2019 edition of Arts Insider.