The Internet is said to be a revolution in communication, breaking down the pesky walls of distance and delay. But has the World Wide Web really brought us closer together?
The digital world we live in today survives on anonymity. Unchecked identity. DIY personality. We are who we blog about, the details we divulge about ourselves, the pictures we post on MySpace. For all you know, I could have invented “Brett McCracken” and everything that is in my bio there to the left. Maybe Brett McCracken exists, but how do you know what is written here is his? Does it really matter?
When you read an article online—1000 words in a sea of trillions—the author is so distant, so irrelevant. Sure, when you read a book the author may also feel remote. But it is still just you and the book—a private conversation. The author is felt behind the words. He or she is the reason you’re reading.
But in the vast universe of digital information that swirls around the electronic networks of our new world, personal connection is second fiddle to the big “I”: Information. You, the distant author, the discombobulated name behind that email address … are incidental. The Internet—the great bridging of our global soul—is altogether better at depersonalizing personhood, demystifying mystery, and devaluing the most valuable talent humans have the capacity for: communication.
The Utilitarian It
Martin Buber divided human relationships into two camps: The “I-You” dynamic of unconditional mutuality, and the “I-It” dialectic of disinterested utility. We need to relate to people in both ways. We need to communicate with “It” people to be productive, get what we need, learn; “Without It a human being cannot live,” wrote Buber in I & Thou, “But whoever lives only with that is not human.” Indeed, we cannot survive with relationships that are merely support mechanisms. We need communication that goes beyond give and take; connections that are deeper than network accessibility.
The problem with communication in the digital world is that the digital world was created for utilitarian reasons. The Internet was not made to enrich our communication with each other, but to make it easier to share information. It was birthed out of the cold war bleakness of defense technology, not some Shakespearian dream of how words might relay universal truths.
Look at email. This technology was created to speed up the transfer of private information, and has more than succeeded at this task. But people have also used it to maintain contact with acquaintances they had previously (as in, back in the letter-writing age) not kept up with. And the key word here is used. Email is a utilitarian medium. It makes things easier and possible, even when we didn’t really consider things “difficult” or mind that some things were “impossible” before. Internet theorist Manuel Castells, in his book The Internet Galaxy, is right when he says that email “makes it easier to mark a presence without engaging in a deeper interaction for which the emotional energy is not available every day.” But I wonder: should we maintain relationships half-heartedly because the Internet allows us to? If we don’t have “the emotional energy” to communicate, why force it?
The point I’m trying to make is the Internet, a medium of utility (in fact, I’d argue that all digital media are first and foremost utilitarian) is predisposed to fostering communication that is more about “what I can get from you” than about knowing the real You. It is about acquisition through It, not engagement with You.
All the World’s a Sage
The anonymity, utility and depersonalization of the online world has truly leveled the playing field. Anyone can publish on the Internet or access any thought or idea they wish. All ideas are equal, all opinions valid, everyone an expert. Who knows what Marshall McLuhan would have thought had he lived to see the Internet, but his 1967 quip that globalized media had made “all the world a sage” was certainly prophetic. The invention of the telegraph may have sown the seeds of postmodernity, but the Internet has been the fertile technological ground upon which the philosophy has thrived. The very form of it is anti-modern. There is no hierarchy of truth, no answers in the old sense—just quick-fix “facts” and dot-commentary about everything and its mother. We can speak our minds online like we never could in the classroom, even though, ironically, we are more exposed than ever. It just feels safer thanks to the cushion of digital distance.
The “online article,” then, is a challenging creature. People write differently when they write online—knowing that the “no holds barred” potential of vitriolic reader comments requires a certain sort of guardedly provocative exposition. But people read online articles differently as well. Most people happen upon online articles while casually surfing the web. It’s not as if they’ve invested an amazon.com payment or trip to the library for it. In many ways the online author has a harder sell, but then again there’s really no transaction involved. Readers pay nothing, authors are rarely contracted … there is little at stake but the exchange of ideas.
And therein is the best and worst of it. The online article elevates the idea. It is free to be digested, discussed and deconstructed with an openness and democracy unknown to most mediated discourse. But such free wheeling “honesty” and unfettered pronouncement, coupled with the digitized removal of the “person” behind the byline, opens the door for the sort of undignified, regressive communication that so plagued the protagonist of this article’s opening paragraph.
Note: Brett McCracken is real and hopes we can overcome the regressive tendencies of digital society in efforts to create a truly progressive culture.