Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interrogating the Internet, Part Four (and Conclusion): Networking

Let's get all the chips on the table.  Networking is the purpose of this series.  Or, more accurately, the distinction between networking and communication.  You see, in the early days of the web I feel like there was a rampant philosophical debate about the value of this new technology.  What would dominate the web, the question went, information or communication?  In one camp firmly sat Google and Yahoo, the early bastions of information search.  In the other camp sat AOL and, to a lesser degree, Microsoft (with MSN and Hotmail leading the charge), services that connected people through instant messaging and email.

In the years that have followed it has become clear that the Internet had room - perhaps infinite room - for both communication and information, along with the added and not-totally-unexpected third wheel of commerce.  In my last few posts, I've talked - in broad and inexpert strokes - about commerce and information.  Because we are increasingly natives of the digital landscape, I felt it was worthwhile to point out the obvious, to challenge us to remember aspects of the Internet that we now take for granted or ignore.  For example, information on the web is rarely unbiased, even when it strives to be, and is sometimes wildly inaccurate.  At the very least, search engines do little or nothing to filter results for reliability or accuracy, rather choosing to filter based on more arcane algorithmic criteria like "relevance" as determined by computational linguistics or, more simply, the criteria of the dollar.

That money underpins everything on the Internet, even free networking services like Facebook or Twitter, is another important reminder.  Increasingly we feel entitled, I suspect, to the long range (in time and space) contact that social networking has made possible.  That the services are "free" only increases our sense of entitlement.  But they are not free, no less than a phone, a radio, or a television is.  That does not, in itself, corrupt said services any less than charging for a book corrupts the book, but corruption is not the point.  The point is that we forget too easily that Facebook is not just a website, but a company trying to make a profit.  For day-to-day use, that may not impact us much, but it has implications for a philosophical discussion of the platform.

Before we venture too far down that road, however, let's return to communication and networking.  What do I mean by each of those words, and why have I gone to pains to distinguish between them?  I'll start with networking, since it's the easier of the two to capture.

By "networking," I mean making connections.  When two people network, they try to assess each other's position, and contribute resources - intellectual, physical, or otherwise - to each other in an effort to be of mutual use in the effort to meet emotional, psychological, physical, or professional needs.  Networking is, in short, a kind of poking at each other and shoving stuff (whether tangible or intangible) in each other's direction.  Building a network, then, is about creating a vast web of people to whom one can go for such assistance, and from whom one expects requests of a similar nature.

The beauty of the Internet - as opposed to previous incarnations of the same concept, all the way down to bartering at the local swap meet - is that it makes the whole thing both asynchronous and distributed.  Asynchrony is important because the exchange between one node on a network and another need not be simultaneous, so I might borrow emotional support from a friend or borrow a potentially useful business contact from a mentor without needing to engage in immediate payback.  Granted, this asynchrony of networked exchange is not unique to the Internet, as the phrase "I owe you one" indicates, but it is particularly strong on the web because no face-to-face meeting is even necessary.  "I owe you one" is built into the structure, rather than something that has to be said after an arrangement has been reached.

That networks are distributed on the Internet is by far the more revolutionary and vital of its differences with traditional networks.  What I mean by "distributed" is simply this: it is not important that the person who "owes you one" be the person who pays you (metaphorically) back.  In a sufficiently advanced network redundancies abound.  "You and Connor have 82 friends in common."  If you, then, help out Connor by connecting him with a potential employer, it is not fully necessary, in a world where networks are distributed, asynchronous, and - a third important piece that warrants mention, if not discussion - instantaneous, for Connor to provide a similar service to you.  It is taken as granted that he might, and maybe even will try to do so, but when you have needs that become paramount, you will not seek Connor on the basis of him owing you, but rather only if he is the member of your network most able to help you.

As a result, in a distributed network, there is ample commerce, but it is not always direct.  A cynic would point out that, in the long history of mankind (and especially in the last 300 years), almost every human interaction can be characterized according to political economy.  The debits and credits of that political economy are what made up the networks of the past.  That cynic, then, in order to understand the Internet and the kind of networking that the web has created, would have to decentralize the political economy, shifting it away from the exchange of capital (be it fiscal, emotional, spiritual, or whatever) from one person to another and towards a new model where exchange remains individualized, but the reserves, so to speak, are more communal.

Despite that shift from individual to community, however, the Internet is far from socialist or communist.  It is innately capitalist, innately concerned with individualism and personal gain.  Modern networking is in some sense the epitome of the capitalistic notion of the "invisible hand," where each person looking out for himself allows things to work out for the good of everyone, where the rising tide does, indeed, lift all boats.

Wither communication, in that picture?  Before I can answer that, I need to distinguish communication from networking.  Communication, as I imagine it, is an actual exchange of ideas, an effort not merely to assess the material or emotional needs of oneself and one's interlocutor, but to actually understand the spirit and mind of that person.  Communication is what happens when neither party in a conversation is looking out for his own advancement or the advancement of the other, but rather the shared effort of the two people is dialogue: a talking, thinking, and reasoning through difficult questions about meaning, purpose, and truth.  A modern cynic will say that such a conversation is not possible, because we're all too myopic and too self-absorbed to achieve the level of objectivity necessary for such a conversation to occur.  Moreover, said modernist (or, really, post-modernist) will argue that never in history have such conversation occurred; they have only seemed to do so because of the narrowness of the perspectives of those culturally hegemonic (or, at least, culturally isolated) societies in which conversations are said to have happened.

I suppose, on some level, the capacity for real empathy and, thereby, true dialogue is an article of faith.  Once convinced that such a thing does not exist, it is impossible to be persuaded otherwise, because the opinion itself precludes any evidence to the contrary.  Nevertheless, I believe firmly that such communication can and does happen.  Indeed, while this blog is hardly dialogic, in that I write all of these posts by myself, at its heart is the belief in ideas and communication, despite my doubts that such is possible over the Internet.

Which leads me to the end point of this series of posts.  Twitter and Facebook are two of the most successful and revolutionary services on the Internet.  We might also lump in email, skype, Linkedin, or any of a number of other networking services.  Regardless, however, we will be talking about networking.  It is undoubtedly the case that there is no online service which actively promotes communication in the sense I've talked about it above.  My question is, is there any service that does not, actually, actively prevent communication, in favor of networking?  What's more, is it possibly the case that some networking services begin to trick us into believing that we are communicating when we are actually networking?

Those are questions to which I do not have answers, even if I pose them rhetorically (as if I do have answers).  Regardless, it is clear to me that communication - or, we might also say, learning (a connection that might require a whole post to itself) - have been largely ignored, harried, or even battled against by the political economy of the last 300 or so years.  That dialogue has held on - if only in a few places - is a testament to how important it is to actual human progress.  That it has not yet, to my knowledge, broken through in the digital world is a testament to how powerful the myopic impulse for networking (we might as well say, for personal gain) is.

I leave with an analogy.  Networking is not merely with people, but with ideas.  Increasingly, we are concerned with what ideas link to other ideas.  While there is evidence that learning happens largely through making connections, and that building networks of thoughts and definitions and concepts is an important part of thinking critically, I wonder when we synthesize.  Building a network - of people or ideas - does not seem innately good or bad, any less than a blueprint or a scaffold for a building is innately functional.  Rather, the question is what do we do with that network.  If we merely connect ideas (or people) to each other, but never bore into them, try to discern their meaning and import, try to improve ourselves and our world, what good is that network?  It is as if we have made a blueprint for a building but have never actually built it, instead going from room to imaginary room, thinking about how we might decorate them, instead of how we might live in them.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, Paul, and I was glad to finally read your conclusion to such an ambitious project. I also have quite a lot of doubts about the quality of human interaction over the internet, but that said, I'm not sure I totally followed your arguments.

    You wrote that cynics "would point out that, in the long history of mankind (and especially in the last 300 years), almost every human interaction can be characterized according to political economy." Though your obviously sincere belief in the benefit of actual human communication seems on one hand to separate you from the cynics as you characterize them, but then you say quite categorically "It is undoubtedly the case that there is no online service which actively promotes communication in the sense I've talked about it above." You argue that all the best social sites do is to actively promote networking without standing too much in the way of communication. But I ask, why must the two be mutually exclusive? Moreover, if you truly believe that the real empathy necessary to true dialogue exists, then why must networking always be slave to the selfish inclinations of the political economy? What if the networking is for the purpose of solving a larger problem?

    On the same note, you say "it is clear to me that communication...has been largely ignored, harried, or even battled against by the political economy of the last 300 or so years." The past 300 years more so than any other time in human history? How so? It seems to me that true dialogue has forever been a harried, ignored phenomenon happening most often in secret or on the unimportant fringes of this or that power. Has the overwhelming increase in availability to education and information (putting aside debates over the quality of the two) not helped at all? Have all those benefits been so outweighed by modernity's correlated evils? I guess I would have to say that despite all the very pertinent and important evils you've pointed out in these posts, I think the past 300 years have been a net positive in terms of dialogue.

    Finally, you twice picked out the number 300 years. What has been so especially bad about the past three centuries in your opinion?

    Phew! Sorry for the lengthy comment! Keep up the good work.

    P.S. Ok final question, I swear: where do thoughtful comments on blogs stand in the networking v. communication discussion?