Saturday, August 08, 2009

On (cyber) communication and (cyber) community

I've been thinking lately on the hazards of communication -- or rather miscommunication -- inherent in 21st century online communities. Facebook, twitter, online forums and discussion boards, chatrooms -- even just plain old e-mail -- are all full of opportunities to hurt others and be hurt in return. I've witnessed plenty of this over the years, and some recent unkind words I've seen have prompted this present musing.

Communication between humans is a tricky thing. Without a doubt, the best, most complete form of communication is face-to-face. This is what we are naturally best at: it is the product of millions of years of human and primate evolution.

When conversing with one or several persons in person, we not only rely on the words we say, but also on the tone, volume and timing of those words. We rely on facial expressions and a vast array of body languages. There is physical proximity, there is entrance and exit. There is a whole subconsciously (or not so subconsciously) enacted ritual involved in face-to-face communication. There are all the elements of self-presentation -- dress and grooming, for example. There is sharing of food, there is, perhaps, the social lubricant of wine. (Or the social dis-lubricant, as the case may be!)

With this full range -- very substantial 'bandwidth,' if you will -- of communication, certainly our best chances of getting along with each other would arise if we could just break bread together more often. This is why world leaders still arrange to meet face-to-face, especially when it's about something really important.

But since earliest times, humans have felt the need to communicate at a distance. We're not the only animals that do this. Birds communicate with each other without needing to be in direct line of sight of one another. Whales communicate over great distances through sound as well. We humans have likewise emulated these creatures and used our voices to communicate from a distance.

But our vocal apparata aren't so well developed. There is only so far we can go with this. So, being inventive, we've resorted to all kinds of schemes to get the message across: smoke, light, colored flags ... even writing things down on pieces of clay, then papyrus, then vellum, then rag paper or whatever and having someone (or something - carrier pigeons even!) carry the message to our correspondent.

Then along came electricity and the telegraph, etc., and next thing you know, here we are sending little messages all around the world on all our little electronic gadgets.

If you pause to think about it, it's a little amazing that the message gets through at all. We've gone from the daylong village pow-wow to twitter. Is it any wonder that something gets lost?

There is an analogy that can be made here to mechanical advantage.

In a simple machine, such as a lever or a pulley, if you increase the distance through which a force is applied, the actual amount of force needed to move a given mass is reduced. The longer the lever arm, the easier it is to use it to raise up a heavy weight.

Our communication technologies seem to operate in a similar fashion. Because of our technological advances, we appear to be able to communicate the same information with less effort on our part. A text message can be sent with minimal physical exertion, without dressing up (or getting dressed at all!), without breaking bread, without any travel or talking or whatever.

But this is not so grand as it seems, because what I see is great power being place in a very few words or characters (perhaps into just 140 characters, including white space); and all too often this is great power to hurt feelings, alienate people and otherwise miscommunicate.

One way the 'leverage' comes in is because it is just too darn easy to hit that send button. I think we all know the feeling of writing a really nasty, angry e-mail, then hitting that send button a little too quickly. Regrettable. It's pretty much impossible to get those unkind words back once they've hit the information superhighway.

Of course, angry letters were also written back in the old days. But, hopefully, the process was just slow enough to allow someone a better chance at second thoughts. Of course, this didn't always happen, and it's not so easy (not to mention illegal), to try to retrieve your angry letter from the post box.

Another way the 'leverage' is expressed is in the way we try to convey sometimes complex or nuanced ideas, feelings, etc. in very, very few symbols. There is no facial expression, body language or wine to back us up. There is not even the full richness and variety of our various written languages at hand.

So in this age of highly leveraged, immediate communication, the potential to cause harm is very great. While it may be the case that recipients of hurtful messages will need to harden their skins, I believe the real onus falls on the sender of any message to really think about what we are trying to convey, and how we are going about doing it.

It used to be called "restraint of pen and tongue."

Now I guess it should be called "restraint of fingers and send buttons."

One of the ten precepts of Zen buddhism can be expressed this way:

See the perfection: do not speak of others' errors and faults.

Another of the precepts goes like this:

Realize the self and other as one: do not elevate the self and blame others.

Both of these precepts suggest how we can really hurt one another through our words. It's no small matter. If we are peace-loving people who would like to see a better, happier world for ourselves and others, we have to start with how we treat each other in even the smallest, seemingly insignificant ways.

Even 140 characters matter
. Perhaps more than they should, but having engaged this technology, we have now taken on a greater responsibility.

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