I know I'm late to the game, but I just signed up for Twitter (find me there under "uselesstree"). It is, right now, quite a distraction: a new source of numerous items and commentary on China in both English and Chinese. Perhaps it will become another sort of information filtering device, or maybe it will simply overwhelm me with too much data....
As I set up my "following" list, composed heavily of China-based journalists and bloggers and academics, I couldn't help wondering if this was indeed a good thing, this opening myself up to ever more information. My first impressions have been positive. While I listened to a live audio stream of Biden's talk at Sichuan University, I was able to monitor the simultaneous tweets from journalists in the room with him, producing an eerie sense of propinquity. And then, shifting my attention, watching the torrent of tweets about Libya scroll by, I felt closer to the news then ever before.
But, ultimately, so what? What real difference does it make if I know certain details sooner than I might otherwise have known? And what of all the rumors and chatter that pour in?
As is my wont, I starting thinking in Daoist terms, more particularly: what would Zhuangzi tweet?
Of course the first answer - because it seems to always be the first answer of Daoism - is "nothing." The Daoist case against Twitter would start with an assertion of its utter inessentiality. As the Daodejing tells us (passage 47): "You can know all beneath heaven though you never step out your door, and you can see the Way of heaven though you never look out the window." By extension, being more widely connected with the world though electronic media does not tells us anything more fundamental about the rhythms of Way and the human experience within Way than we can glean from our most immediate and mundane surroundings. Similarly, in Chapter 5 of Zhuangzi we are presented with a series of wise men, worthy of emulation, who are detached and silent and isolated. Here's an example:
No one ever heard him say anything interesting; he just agreed with everyone else. He didn't hold high office, so he couldn't help desperate people. He wasn't a man of means, able to fill people's bellies. And he was ugly enough to shock the entire world. He was agreeable and never interesting, understood nothing beyond his everyday world - and still, men and women flocked around him. He was unlike any on I'd ever heard of....(73-74)
A guy like that doesn't tweet. There's no need to tweet: he doesn't know, and doesn't want to know, anything interesting beyond his everyday world. He is an informational hermit. And, to the extent that Zhuangzi is holding this sort of person up as a positive example of how to live in Way, we might conclude that Zhuangzi, too, would not tweet.
But it may not be quite that simple. For Daoists, wuwei - 无 为 - need not be an absolute ban on any kind of activity whatsoever. It simply suggests doing less, or not allowing activity to become obsession, or minimizing expectations about what activity might accomplish. Daoists may strike a relatively passive stance toward the world, but as the world changes they find themselves interacting in ways they might not have planned or anticipated. Daoists use telephones and computers - what would distinguish a Daoist use of such instruments is precisely the continued recognition of their instrumentality. They are means, not ends in themselves; means that allow for connection without letting connectivity itself to distract from one's experience and apprehension of this moment of Way. I could imagine a Daoist texting a photo of a tree or a stream or a cat or whatever to a friend as an indication of how Way is unfolding around him or her at a particular moment. But having or losing a phone is not really that big of a deal. The Daoist would be comfortable with our without the means of connection. If connectivity is possible and easy and not terribly distracting, fine; if connectivity is unavailable, fine, too.
So, Twitter. To a Daoist, it's just another thing, another instrument of interaction. Rather like the passage from Zhuangzi above, in which the personal presence of the exemplary person and the recording of that presence in the text is a kind of instrumental connectivity, we can sense our place in Way through our interactions with others. Of course, we can also sense our place in Way without such references, but connectivity, like sense perception, is a means - not exclusive or preeminent - of apprehending Way. And that's what Twitter can be.
Indeed, reading the flood of tweets from #Libya, while following a live blog on Al Jezeera, I had a feeling of being "in the moment." Like sitting in the middle of a large group of people, an audience, all watching the same performance, and all commenting as the show unfolded. Some comments were frivolous and shallow, others were bracingly informative: the mixed quality of any human conversation. The feeling of simulteneity was a reminder of the vastness of Way. I could not fully know what was going on in Libya but I could know, in brief, sometimes obscure snippets, how others were perceiving what was going on there.
Perhaps, then, Zhuangzi, if he were tweeting, would go all meta on it: commenting on the commentary, showing how the concerns and discussion there fall into timeless patterns of human desire and folly:
The spoken [or the tweeted] isn't just bits of wind [or bytes]. In the spoken, something is spoken. But what it is never stays fixed and constant. So is something spoken, or has nothing ever been spoken? People think we're different form baby bird cheeping [or tweeting!], but are we saying any more than they are? (21)
But Daoist tweets could also be more substantive, pointing out, as the Daodejing does, that the rebels' apparent victory should not surprise us all that much:
The weakest in all beneath heaven gallops through the strongest, and vacant absence slips inside solid presence. (43)
The possibilities are endless.
So, tweeting need not be a violation of Daoist sensibilities. Obessive tweeting as an end in itself is a needless distraction. But the well turned, evocatve short comment - Daoists have been doing that for centuries:
Way is perennially doing nothing so there's nothing it doesn't do. (DDJ, 37)