A Response to Zev Trachtenberg: dialogue in the expanse

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about my understanding of the nature of dialogue. In response, Xenia fellow Zev Trachtenberg wrote an interesting post expanding upon the issue of recognition which I had briefly touched upon. Now in turn I wish to respond to a question he asked about whether or not deep dialogue can be conducted in the anonymous world of the internet. Here is the passage which caught my attention:

And this leads me to something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, ironically, it’s the profound danger in the opportunities for dialogue apparently offered by the Internet. And I certainly see the irony in making this point as a comment to a blog post! But I’ll bet you’ve seen what I have in mind scroll down the comments attached to blogs on important issues, and you typically confront the polar opposite of dialogue. It is very hard to imagine healthy adults saying these things to each other in person.

This is a commonplace, but it seems increasingly true: By facilitating communication between strangers, disconnected from mutual human presence, the Web seems to foster the depersonalization, if not the outright demonization, of the people with whom one is communicating. Nothing in the situation of a comment thread imposes any demand that anyone acknowledge that anyone else deserves the basic respect we almost automatically accord to people in our physical surroundings. This is not simply an impediment to genuine dialogue on the Web, at least the free-wheeling Web of unmoderated, public boards. What is even more disturbing is the idea that the norms that are being fostered on the Web might be spilling over, becoming a kind of standard for the way to express disagreement in public discussions.

Zev and I actually met in person a few weeks later and had a lovely conversation about this issue, giving me even more to ponder. Since that time, here are some of my thoughts about the possibilities and limitations of Internet dialogue, to which I hope you might add your own input.

The main question in my mind about the Internet’s usefulness to forming dialogue is that of physicality. In our conversation, Zev and I worked a great deal on the issue of of non-verbal communication, questioning the role of physical presence in forming the bond necessary for true dialogue to occur. Considering the social nature of the human species, is it necessary for us to be in the presence of another to truly, sub-consciously perceive them as being “real”? Take for example the often negative tone of blog comments, is this because individuals do not really understand their Internet peers as being real people because of the lack of physical interaction?

If it is the case that humans must be physically present to each other in order for necessary, deeper bonds of recognition to initially form, then the Internet (at least as limited by the current technology) will never be useful for anything more than facilitating such bonds after they’ve been formed. Hence the web might be a tool for continuing dialogue, but not for starting it in the first place.

What if physical presence isn’t necessary? What if it is possible to recreate at least enough personality in your online persona so that others are able to perceive you as an individual rather than some empty screen name? How does the increasing capability of on-line video calls, or real-time exchange via texting, chatting, etc. change this dynamic?

But what does it mean to open yourself up to the online world? In reality your physical body allows you to draw away from people, to show how you’ve grown and changed over time, and hint at subtleties that won’t be documented. But once you release something into the chaos that is the Internet, it is frozen there forever, to be uncovered and judged by people years after you wrote it, when you are no longer the same person. Aside from the obvious dangers of identity theft, I think it might be this last point which discourages people from opening themselves to others online.

Another issue (which just popped into my head a few seconds ago) is this: how useful it is to be able to connect with the globe if so many people comment on a post that you are unable to respond to them all? How can we overcome this problem so that attempts at conversation are not just swallowed by the silence of cyber-space (like a virtual version of the SETI project)?

I shall continue with my musings and hope to hear some of yours…

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