On the 2nd of November 2017 at around 4pm Pacific East Coast Time, the personal Twitter account of the 45th president of the United States disappeared. Twitter users trying to navigate to @realDonaldTrump found they received the following message: “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!” The internet was instantly populated with messages of gratitude and hope in the belief that Donald Trump’s twitter account had been silenced. “It was as if we had all finally woken up from one very bad and very long dream and could finally move on with our lives” one commentator declared.1 The silence, though, was short-lived. Eleven minutes after it disappeared, Trump’s twitter was back online.
It soon emerged that the disappearance of Donald Trump’s account was the work of a customer support employee on their last day. Twitter apologised publicly and promised to conduct an internal review. Trump described the employee as “rogue” and suggested that the act of sabotage meant that “the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact.” More broadly, though, the “rogue” employee’s actions were widely supported. “If only for a moment, everything seemed better,” explained Karlee Kanz. “Whoever disabled Donald Trump’s Twitter account shouldn’t be sacked. They should be promoted” argued Chris Ward. And perhaps most apposite, Kumail Nanjiani stated simply that: “Not all heroes wear capes.”
This was not the first time that Trump’s presidency had produced unlikely heroes in an online community. When the US National Park Service was temporarily banned from Twitter after retweeting images that compared the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd to Obama’s, the official Twitter account of Badlands National Park also went “rogue” and began posting about climate change. When the tweets were deleted a new account entitled @AltNatParkSer took over, claiming to be the collaborative effort of several active National Park Service rangers and friends.2 Yet, this most recent act was different in that rather than resistance through added noise, here was sabotage through silence.
As the dust from Donald Trump’s eleven enforced minutes of silence settled, however, questions rose about what had taken place. Serious concerns had been raised about Trump’s Twitter usage before, with many arguing that his racist comments about Latinos, abusive tweets to female journalists and threat of nuclear war contravened Twitter’s community standards. Soon, users who had been suspended for far lesser infringements were reminding the online community that if Twitter’s policies were read by the book, the “rogue” employee was merely suspending an account that Twitter themselves should already have moved to silence. Rather than wading into the debate about whether or not Twitter should continue to allow a head of state to incite genocide in 280 characters or less4, I wish here to instead use the eleven minutes in which Donald Trump’s Twitter feed lay in silence as a departure point to think about silence in digital media culture more generally.
Silence is often figured as something that has been lost to which we must return. The past was silent; today we live amidst noise. Silence is thus more associated with the school established by Pythagoras at Croton than the annals of Twitter and Facebook; with the monastic orders that followed the rule of Saint Benedict, rather than the hubbub of 24-hour news; the Hindu philosophy of Manua, rather than the rush and buzz of 21st century capitalism. It is notable then that silence is perhaps most prominent today at moments of collective remembrance; instances of national mourning or respect for the memory of war dead. More problematically, silence defines certain suppressions in history: with some forcibly silencing others through the exercise of power and others valiantly remaining silent in the face of persecution and torture.
Many of these contemporary perspectives on silence are encoded in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. Set in the seventeenth century, the plot sees two Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Edo-era Japan to try and find their mentor father Ferraria (Liam Neeson) who, it is rumoured, has renounced his faith. The young priests arrive in Japan to find the Christian population driven underground by the persecutions of the Edo regime and a large part of the film focuses on the character of Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who is captured by the Inquisitor and urged, like Ferraria, to renounce his faith. Rodrigues refuses, but it soon becomes clear that his silence is only leading to the horrific torture of Japanese Christians. At the film’s climax, Rodrigues publically renounces his faith, but this expression merely instigates another silence. After his apostasy, Rodrigues no longer lives as a priest, but in the final shot of the film, after Rodrigues has died, the camera zooms in on him as he is cremated to show his hands clutching a crudely made crucifix.
Silence, perhaps predictably, contains many layers of silence: there is the quiet piety of the secret Japanese Christians; the refusal of Rodrigues to renounce his religion; and the silent maintenance of his faith even after that renouncement. Silence was also prominent in the production of the film itself: to prepare for the role Andrew Garfield spent a year studying with a New York based Jesuit monk, including a week long silent retreat with Adam Driver.5 Reviews were largely positive with Rotten Tomatoes declaring that “Silence ends Martin Scorsese’s decades-long creative quest with a thoughtful, emotionally resonant look at spirituality and human nature that stands among the director’s finest works.” Putting aside purely aesthetic concerns, it is worth asking why a film about the troubled attempts of the Jesuits to bring the Christian faith to seventeenth century Japan is so resonant today? The simple answer that will be presented here is that Silence the film, like silence itself, collects together a series of values that might be framed as spiritual, meditative and contemplative that, rightly or wrongly, modernity is commonly held to have lost. The modern world is loud and while we might not want the smallpox and religious dogma, we would do well to return to older forms of meditative silence.
Viewed from an alternative angle, though, digital media culture is already awash with silence. At the most literal level digital media does not make much noise. It is not verbal, but contained on a screen and where sounds do pervade, they, unlike a conversation, can be turned off. Tablets, phones and laptops are far quieter than earlier forms of media technology: the faint rumble of a hard drive is nowhere near as loud as the ringing of a telephone, the scrolling of a finger on a mousepad is hardly as audible as the rustling pages of a newspaper, even the simple tapping of a touchscreen keyboard cannot compete with the clack of a typewriter and however close you get to the wireless router it will never make the static fizz and acoustic pop of a dial-up modem. On top of the silence of digital media technology are the enviable amount of devices designed specifically to shut out noise: double glazing negates the neighbours, noise-cancelling headphones cover up the sound of drilling in the road, the mute button removes the news report that you do not wish to hear.
Most conspicuous amongst recent technologies of silence is the internet blocker Freedom. Developed by Fred Stutzman in the late noughties, Freedom is an app that temporarily blocks the internet from the users’ devices. For a monthly fee, the user can schedule sessions across all their devices (phone, iPad, PC) that prevent them from accessing particular applications (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, email) or the internet in its entirety for a period of up to eight hours. Stutzman created the software while trying to complete his PhD at the University of North Carolina and finding himself needing to self-impose exile from cyberspace: “As a doctoral student, it’s something that we’re all familiar with,” he said. “Anybody who needs to do long writing or Internet research…it’s hard to draw the line between work and time-wasting.”6 For those delighting in Donald Trump’s enforced eleven minutes of silence, then, there is perhaps already an alternative: why wait for a “rogue” Twitter employee to pull the plug when the internet can already be silenced? Yet, while we might assume that Freedom – and its many derivatives7 – transport us back to the older forms of silence, the meditative quietude as venerated by contemporary society and encoded in Scorsese’s film, on closer inspection, the app is doing something quite different.
Tucked inside the acknowledgements of her 2012 novel NW, Zadie Smith thanks “Freedom ©” directly for “creating the time”.8 Smith is not the only one for whom Freedom has proved popular. Among other celebrated users are Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Naomi Klein. In 2009 Freedom was estimated to have around 10,000 users. Today the app boasts 500,000. Yet, what is most conspicuous about Freedom’s marketing is the relationship they present between the silence they can offer and the productivity it will allow. Freedom is used to “improve focus and productivity.” “Use Freedom to block distractions so you can get your work done. Block what you want, when you want, and be more productive.” “Sit down to work knowing you’re completely in control of distractions.” “With Freedom, you’ll make productivity a habit.” Drilling into their website further, Freedom cites the “growing body of rigorous and important research in the fields of distraction and productivity”, which “shows a staggering need for people to gain control over their relationship with technology.” They pay particular attention to studies that have shown that every time someone checks an email, social feed or receives a notification it takes the mind 23 minutes to re-focus. For Freedom this is “a phenomenal cost to our entire workforce and to each of us individually as we strive to do our best work.” They go on to detail how multitasking is 40% less productive, willpower is a finite resource and distractions are habit-forming before explaining how Freedom can “eliminate distractions and focus on a single task”, “break bad habits”, “build new (good) habits” and, most crucially “be more productive.” “You’ll be amazed at how much you get done using Freedom. We hear all the time from happy users about how unaware they were of the negative impact distractions had – until they experienced the zen-like quiet of Freedom time.”9 Echoing Zadie Smith’s gratitude, silence framed by Freedom might be “zen-like” but above all it is productive.
Freedom’s insistence that productivity both commercial and personal can be achieved through the silencing of the Internet is worth relating to two wider contexts. Firstly, it is worth drawing attention to the manner in which the internet has shifted from a site of emancipation to something which must itself be resisted.10 The revolutionary potential of internet technology that as recently as the Arab Spring was being heralded as a beacon of hope is, in Freedom’s terms, something that needs to be silenced; and, with big business now invested in users and clicks, that silence will not be imposed from above. As Freedom’s CEO Fred Stutzman told a New York Times reporter: “We’re moving toward this era where we’ll never be able to escape from the cloud. I realized the only way to fight back was at an individual, personal level.”11 Secondly, and more directly, it is worth noting the parallels between Freedom’s marketing pitch and its insistence on silence as allowing for personal productivity and fulfilment and the manner in which neoliberalism has reorganised productivity around the individual in what Michel Foucault termed the “entrepreneur of the self”. Silence, in these terms, is not a contemplative return to a lost past, but rather something that has been manoeuvred seamlessly into our biopolitical present.
On the 29th August 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, the pianist David Tudor arrived on stage to perform three short pieces of music. As the music writer Will Hermes describes it, the pianist started a stopwatch, sat down at the piano and then simply closed the lid. The composer was of course John Cage and the three short pieces were the three movements of a piece that became known simply by its total duration: 4’33”. In his writings, Cage cites two influences for the piece: firstly, the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, and secondly, his experience with an anechoic chamber, a room designed for its absolute silence and used for various types of acoustic testing. On entering a chamber, Cage detected two sounds: one high, the other low. He was told by the duty engineer that the high-pitched sound was that of his nervous system, while the low-pitch was that of his blood. There was something to listen to everywhere, even in silence. Consequently, just as Rauschenberg’s white paintings contained subtle variations in surface texture and reflected light, so too was the performance of 4’33” far from silent. Will Hermes describes how “one could likely hear the sound of the breeze in the trees, rain pattering lightly on the rooftop, the chirruping of crickets, a dog barking aimlessly somewhere in the distance, the sound of bodies shifting their weight on creaky pine benches, the sound of breath being drawn and being expired.”12
Many decried Cage’s work as a joke, but his work went on to influence a generation of musicians newly alive to the ambient and acoustic qualities not of instruments but of environments. Composers such as Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Alvin Lucier and John Luther Adams, took Cage’s 4’33” of silence and found other ways to frame sound. To return to Donald Trump’s own eleven minutes of silence, then, the temporal frame is perhaps an easily overlooked component. Just as Cage’s piece was defined by the time in which the pianist did not play, so too is Trump’s silence defined by the minutes in which he did not tweet. At the most obvious level, then, Cage’s piece demonstrates how silence is always a construction, a frame for listening to something else: by framing something as silent we hear things we would otherwise have overlooked. Thus, Freedom only allows silence for up to eight hours and that period of digital silence is framed entirely through the expansion of productive potential. Perhaps, then, rather than associating silence with older, meditative practices the modern world has lost, we should consider silence as a way to re-frame the manner in which we listen to the present. Indeed, as @Matthew_Taylor responded to the glee expressed on Twitter about Trump’s own eleven minutes of silence: “Everyone’s saying how good it was when Donald Trump’s Twitter was deleted. I was terrified he might be doing work.”