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The Age of Silence?

It is said that towards the end of his life the Buddha gathered his students about him, presumably to deliver what could have been his greatest teaching. He reached down to the grass, picked a flower, and showed it to his students. And he said nothing.

It seems that alongside the dramatic strides in technology and communication in the last 20 years, there has been an increasing and paradoxical presence of silence. Because it is silent, however, it is not so easily noticed. Let me explain.

If you’re a Millenial, you grew up with a landline from which most of your communication stemmed. Along comes the internet (by far the greatest invention of the modern age) and email. Email was a mindblowing novelty. We now had, for the first time, the capacity to communicate with others around the world at incredible speeds, with the touch and click of a few buttons. But this capacity was the first appearance of a new kind of silence. Why utter words through the telephone when you can just use a keyboard to send your message?

Not long after this, Facebook became a sensation. This relegated email for more “professional” use, whereas we could use Facebook to communicate in a much more social way. But while email allowed you to express yourself in full detail, and hopefully with style and ingenuous grammar, Facebook allowed you to post a quick update. Again, why compose a detailed email when you can just post a quick thought on Facebook? This is a further gradation of silence. But it does not end there.

Twitter muted us even further by limiting whatever communication we have to 140 characters. 140! Is the speed of life is so incomprehensibly fast, or our attention so zapped, that we cannot spare the time to read or listen to someone if what they have to say exceeds 140 characters? Isn’t 140 characters scarcely enough space for a one-liner? But wait, there’s more folks. As of August 9th, Pinterest is now open to the public, making the switch from invite-only. Now you can communicate by simply assembling a collection of images. In other words, you don’t have to say anything at all. And while I love images as much as anyone else, I can’t help but think that in other ways we are becoming increasingly silent.

What comes next? Is there a new form of communication emerging? And as it emerges, are we thereby further silenced? I should say that when the Buddha picked the flower, he said nothing. But as he held it in his hand, he smiled. Only one of his students understood the teaching.