Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Discourse and The Internet

One of the great things about the internet -- and communication technology in general -- is the ways in which it has, in some corners and among certain kinds of people, revolutionized intellectual discourse. Whether on a forum, on Facebook, on a blog comment section, or in an email exchange, the character of discourse that takes place is distinct from live interactions, telephone conversations or the exchange of snail-mail letters. Discourse that takes place on the internet leaves an interval for contemplation, reflection, thought and research that live interactions typically do not. And while writing letters also offer this feature, they have the defect of having large gaps of time between transmissions. The internet has the capacity to fill this void -- between not enough time for thought, and too much -- in communication.

Of course, just because the medium makes contemplation and reflection possible, doesn't mean that human beings will often take advantage of it. As I've written before, the internet has actually had a coarsening effect on discourse, to a large extent. My aim here is only to point out the capacity for a new kind of discourse that the internet opens up, for those who choose to take advantage of it.

In live interactions with people, specifically in a situation where there is an argument or disagreement among parties, so often not much relevant gets said. The tendency in exchanges of this sort is for people to get easily distracted from the main point of contention and led down tangents, until the end of the conversation loses the central point of dispute entirely.

These types of interactions are not without benefits, though. They can be quite lively and sometimes even enlightening, but they very often lack focus. While, on the internet, given two parties seeking genuine, rational dialogue, there is much greater potential for clarity and focus. The reason for this is obvious; when you post something online, you must first consider your words, read them, think about them, edit them, and then post them because once you hit submit, your words are there permanently (more or less), open for scrutiny. Furthermore, your partner in the discussion can always return to words you had said earlier and quote them back to you. Therefore, greater care to be consistent, clear and coherent is needed.

None of this is the case, in the same manner, in a live or telephone discussion. In either of those contexts, conversations are expected to meander, get off-topic, for threads of argument to be lost ignored, for subjects to change, for inconsistencies to be less obvious etc. Thus these exchanges will always be less ordered and precise.

Also, in live discussions, there is a tendency for participants to feel the need to respond directly to everything that the other says, often not taking time to contemplate whether or not what has been said is pertinent. Of course, it's still possible in live arguments to realize something is a red herring or otherwise irrelevant, and point it out, but it's much easier to do in online discussions.  When discussing something in real time, one is much less likely -- for whatever reason -- to stop and ask one's self that most important question: "and therefore what?"

To give an example, on the topic of 'religion' a critic of religion might unleash a string of complaints against 'religion', when engaging in a conversation with a religious person. The religious person might feel inclined to answer these critiques, feeling that it is their duty to defend religion as such, if they are themselves religious. What might not be immediately apparent to either party, especially without time to contemplate the matter, is that a devout Mormon can be a devout Mormon and still be an intense critic of 'religion'; a devout Catholic can be a devout Catholic and still acknowledge all the evils perpetrated in the name of religion, even in the name of Catholicism, without feeling any pressure to renounce his faith; a devout Muslim can affirm any critique of 'religion' generally, claiming that the chief problem with 'religion' is that most religious people are not devout Muslims. In short, a religious person could -- rightly, logically -- answer any critique of 'religion' in general by merely stating "and therefore what?" 'Religion' could be universally recognized as a deleterious force in general, and still be advocated by every single religious person, without contradiction.

Of course, it's not incumbent to take this tactic in a situation like this. A religious person might genuinely want to defend religion as such, rather than just their religion in particular. The point is only that, in a live conversation, the irrelevance is less likely to be seen for what it is, and much time will be wasted by one party attacking 'religion' -- whatever that is -- while the other attempts defending it, when there is often no need to do so. The internet makes it more possible to cut to the heart of the matter more quickly, as, in this very same situation, rather than feeling the need to answer a specific critique of religion, the respondent might simply stop, think, ask himself "and therefore what?", and then point out the irrelevance of the contention.

Another benefit of the internet is that discussions can be seen through to some kind of end point, if those engaging so desire, and a much more thorough treatment of the subject can be achieved. Of course, in live interactions, you can have an ongoing conversation with someone that spans many discussions, which has its own sets of benefits, but they will necessarily tend to lack the precision of an online discussion of a similar nature.

These are just a few specific examples of the capacity for discourse on the internet to cut through the dross that composes large portions of live discussion, but, if you stop to ponder the matter, I'm sure you will recognize many other examples. Of course, some of this applies to the written word in general -- books, letters, newspapers, etc. -- not solely the internet. But the internet quickens, heightens and make more acute these benefits. And, certainly, there are many benefits of live discussion that text exchanges on the internet doesn't necessarily provide, such as body language and touch. The internet simply makes possible a greater depth and precision of human interaction, not by replacing other forms, but by being another tool with its own particular benefits (and detriments).

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