‘I don’t resonate with you.’ Why we need to vibe (and not vibe) with each other

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No one likes a grammar pedant.

English is not my mother tongue, and I’m certainly guilty of the occasional dangling modifier or unclear pronoun. I take comfort in the fact that proper usage is an always-evolving concept and that the line between error and poetic license can be delightfully hazy. Yesterday’s malapropisms are today’s alternative definitions, and anyone who derives pleasure from pointing out others’ mistakes should remember that manners matter and rules change.

But when an error offends logic, reason, and good taste, even the most forgiving grammarian can completely lose his mind.

Take the word “resonate.”

We all know the verb’s literal meaning: to make a loud, clear, deep, and continuing sound. And we’ve all admired its figurative use: We hear something (an idea, story, concept, joke) that speaks to us so personally and lucidly that it has the effect of a loud, clear, deep, and continuing sound. A lovely metaphor, right? And so easy to visualize. The sound resonates in space, just as the idea resonates in our minds.

However, lately, I’ve been hearing this word used in a way that defies the powers of my imagination. “I resonate with that idea.” What on earth does this mean? To unpack this metaphor, I find myself picturing some kind of Being John Malkovich scenario in which a tiny person is buzzing inside the walls of an idea. The surrealism may be praiseworthy, but language tends to serve us best when it makes sense.

I can’t help but think of the “I resonate with” trend as a cry for help dressed up in terrible grammar. As the Anthropocene gives way to the life-centered economy, we humans feel thrust from our thrones. We want to return to being the subject of the sentence, the active voice, the element in command. When something resonates with us, we are relegated to the object, the receiver of the action, the element whose destiny is shaped by another force.

The singer/songwriter Nick Cave believes that the key to overcoming writer’s block is to acknowledge that the issue may not be the musician’s inability to write the song, but their inability to receive it when it arrives.

Is it possible that we must be passive to experience resonance? Do we only hear those loud, clear, deep, and continuing sounds—perhaps the heartbeat of the universe—when we forfeit control and let the wind blow us where it may? Does our grammar know more about the world than we do? Does it embody wisdom that eludes the modern mind?

What resonates—and what doesn’t?

The thing about resonance? It’s unpredictable. A highly anticipated Broadway musical, written by a star composer, can sputter at the box office and become the flop of the season. An obscure single from an unknown artist can top the Billboard chart out of nowhere. A Czech writer who has been dead for a century can become the hero of generation TikTok. We can study data, trends, formulas, and probabilities, but there’s still no sure way of predicting the mood of the market and what will take off.

As a curator, I know this all too well. I’ve planned talks that should’ve been across-the-board success stories—great speaker, timely topic, engaged crowd—but, for whatever reason, just sort of fizzle. It’s often hard to pinpoint the main culprit. Instead, these failures make you realize the hubris in planning to have an impact. You can’t try to resonate. Ultimately, resonance is beyond us. Like happiness, it can’t be a goal.

I think of shyness as resonance’s best friend. Shy people are often better at listening to the world and receiving its signals. They tend to be more attuned to the “frequencies” of others. They don’t “resonate with others,” they are ultra-sensitive to how others resonate with them. It is no coincidence that many artists are notoriously shy, despite having confident creative vision or a gregarious stage persona. Artists teach us another valuable lesson about resonance: What resonates with you will likely resonate with others, too.

The resonance of resonance is resonance.

Echo and resonance

This begs the question: Does resonance increase inside an echo chamber?

Like resonance, the term echo chamber has both literal and figurative meanings that are related, but not the same. In the former sense, an echo chamber is an enclosed space that naturally amplifies an original acoustic signal. Literal resonance differs from echo because it is based on the idea of vibrations (good or bad). In physics terms, resonance occurs when an object or system achieves harmony between its natural frequency and an external source of vibration. In other words, resonance is the moment when both external stimulus and inner frequency vibrate and emit sounds of the same frequency. Play a G on a cello and the G string on a nearby cello will start to vibrate, too.

These differences have important implications when we look at the figurative meanings of both words. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa thinks that resonance has social currency. According to him, resonance changes the object’s role. When listeners hear an idea that resonates with them, they become creators. When followers hear an instruction that resonates with them, they become participants. In his 2016 book, Resonance, Rosa examined the philosophical and political dimensions of the phenomenon. He defines resonance as a mutual vibration between an object and a subject, or between two subjects, through collective experience, emotions, or some other energy attunement.

In a dialogue with fellow scholars Thijs Lijster and Robin Celikates, Rosa imagines resonance as a descendant of Emile Durkheim’s notion of “collective effervescence,” the ecstasy shared by participants in music, sports, dancing, or spirituality. Rosa believes that attuning ourselves to this intense feeling of invigorating camaraderie is a necessary alternative to measuring, mapping, analyzing, and exploiting the world. In this sense, resonance is the interpersonal sibling of the more inward-looking concept of mindfulness. It’s like having a dozen feelers placed on the things and people that surround you so that you vibrate collectively and share an experience.

Resonance is radically non-instrumental, Rosa stresses, so it cannot be used to maximize an outcome. It has no goal. Unlike harmony, it allows space for dissonance. In fact, resonance requires a certain friction. Paradoxically, when two people entirely agree on a point, when their experiences are fully congruent, or when an idea doesn’t encounter any resistance, there is less resonance than in instances when friction triggers energy changes. Rub your hands against one another for a minute and you’ll feel it. Or just look at social media, the lure of heated argument and debate.

Echo chambers lack that friction. So do “filter bubbles,” which are essentially the digital incarnation of echo chambers. In his book Filterworld, Kyle Chayka explores how personalized searching, algorithms, and online behavior flatten our culture by continually offering us more of what we’ve already consumed, shrinking our digital worlds.

Artificial Intelligence is not going to make this any better. New research suggests that AI is reducing complexity, or at least our experience of it. A recent study, The Platonic Representation Hypothesis, shows that as AI models become more powerful, they form increasingly similar statistical representations of the world. The result is that we are effectively simplifying our understanding of the world and then disseminating that simplification. If that trend continues, we could find ourselves living in a reality that’s much less complex, rich, and multifaceted than the one we know now—a monochromatic world on the same frequency level but with absolutely no resonance.

The main point of concern here is not that an LLM such as GPT-4 is reductionist in its representation of reality, per se; it is that various AI models, each reductionist in their own way, are converging. An echo chamber of echo chambers of echo chambers.

Interestingly, echo chambers also come with benefits, not only for their “residents,” but also for society at large. In fact, they might be essential as markers—and makers—of shared identity and values, places of belonging and comfort. Isn’t any community, by definition, an echo chamber? The House of Beautiful Business, the community I cofounded, certainly is. We have no illusions about that (even if one member once called us “the world’s most un-like-minded community”). What we can try to do—and what only human curation, so far, can make possible—is to find creative ways out of our house of mirrors. “Leave the door open on your way out” is one of our commandments, and it is an invitation to bring parallel worlds and universes, antagonists and dissidents, renegades and rebels into our beautiful bubble, and to engage with other echo chambers in a way that produces the kind of friction that results in resonance.

Whether bad or good, we should seek out vibrations. They are the difference between an economy that merely manages life and one that is alive, between code and poetry, and between a filter world and a world full of beauty.

I hope this resonates with you.

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