Saturday, May 14, 2011

More Internets: Responding to a Comment

While writing a response to this comment on my last post, I decided I might as well just make my response into a new post.  Heres' the comment:

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?

And here's my response:

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment DC. I'll do my best to address some of it briefly.

On your first set of questions, I'm not sure whether communication and networking have to be mutually exclusive, per se. I do think, however, that networking has a kind of addictive effect, simplifying our view of interaction to the point that communication becomes undesirable because of how much more effort it is than merely "poking" people and writing on their walls. It doesn't necessarily actively discourage communication, on a small scale, but on a large scale, while it increases the number of contacts we make, it might decrease the depth of those contacts.

You do make a good point about the problem-solving potential of networks. The ability to connect to people with disparate abilities and specialties allows us to more easily put together teams of problem solvers than any time in the past. There's no question that the Internet's ability to help us find things, people, knowledge, and so on is a boon to all people.

You're right that dialogue has always been harried, of course, and largely ignored society wide. However, despite its myriad corruptions, the intellectual and academic world used to hold dialogue in much higher esteem than it is now. There's no question that the scene has changed in the ways you describe (better access to information and more widespread education) in the modern world, but I guess I would argue that dialogue is a process, and not an outcome, and that in our modern world we're in the stranglehold of outcomes. That is, while there are way more "smart" people, who know more about more things, and who are specialized experts in their fields, I think the proportion of educated men and women who are generalists and process-oriented enough to talk about actual ideas and not just the jargon-infused specialized knowledge of their discipline is woefully small. To my mind, the web encourages, rather than discourages, that kind of (what I consider) intellectually deadly specialization.

That's not to say specialization doesn't work. It does. It drives technological progress, it leads to multi-disciplinary teams of problem solvers, and so on. It's just, having been on such teams, seen such progress, there's a distinct lack of real communication, a failure to ask why we do what we do, or what kind of progress is really desirable. Increasingly it seems to me that we're not only afraid, but maybe even incapable of having that conversation.

As for 300 years, it's partially an arbitrary number. More than anything, I'm pointing to the inception of a modern capitalistic-economy and the coming of romanticism, which ultimately lead to the myopic, every-man's-truth-unto-himself philosophy of post-modernism. I also wanted to encompass the industrial revolution, because it was the time in which the philosophy of "progress" became so powerful. But, again, I could just have easily picked out another time, because the actual past is not nearly so broken into discrete eras as our narrative of it is.

As for your ps, that's a good question to which I don't really have an answer. I often ask myself "why do I write this blog?" Passionate as I am about dialogue, there's little question that I'm as trapped by the medium as writers have been throughout history. The written word can't respond to a question,* to paraphrase Plato, even if I can respond post-facto. Though there is tremendous value in writing, reading, responding, and so on, I don't know if it's fully a dialogue, in that we're stuck exchanging declarative and/or interrogative monologues.

* At a certain point, of course, I might as well critique the shortcomings of books as Plato does. Really, the lesson is, with any technology (like books) there are benefits, which we usually champion, and drawbacks, which we too easily ignore. Unfortunately, in addition to this optimism, we often fail to ask questions like "why do we need this?" or "how should we best use it?"

Then again, much as I prefer dialogue, the alternative is for you and I not to communicate in any form, since you're halfway around the world from where I am if I'm not mistaken.  But I think there's an analogy to be made with distance education here.  Yes, it's better than nothing, but that doesn't mean we should rest on our proverbial laurels and say "oh how great a thing is the Internet!"  I'd instead challenge you, myself, and any other thinking person to think bigger: how might we make the Internet a venue for communication and dialogue?

It's that last question that inspired this series of posts, and I think it's a sticky and difficult question, because it's not so simple as "what kind of website" could accomplish that goal.  And really, I'm talking about the effort to bring real dialogue online - to code it into some experience, and not merely to make it possible or to not make it impossible - requires confronting the commercial, informational, and networked aspects of the Internet experience.

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