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The New Tower of Babel February 16, 2012

Posted by johnhemry in Uncategorized.

I’ll admit up-front that I never expected the internet to dramatically change how people communicated.   That is, I never bought into the idea that this great new online world would break down barriers between us.  What I didn’t expect was how the internet actively discourages communication.

That probably sounds odd given how many people post on the internet every second of every day.  But who are they talking to?  I recently had online experiences with two people I’ve talked to face-to-face pleasantly and more than once.  One had posted a graphic leaning right-wing, and the other a graphic leaning leftwards.  In each case, I commented on the assumptions behind each graphic, which I  thought were shaky.  Now, I’m not a firebreathing troll.  I didn’t come on all “you miserable moron!”  Not at all.  But both came back very strongly, as if amazed that I done anything but say “you’re absolutely right!”  They didn’t want to discuss what they had posted.  They only wanted people to agree with them.

That’s part of human nature.  We don’t want others to question what we say, what we believe, what we think we know.  But since none of us are perfect (myself being a prominent example of imperfection) that sort of exposure to different ideas and people at least helps us understand others and may even cause us to modify our positions.  As has been noted before, though, the internet makes it easy to not just ignore those with different opinions (or who are different), but to block them out completely.  You never need hear anything that contradicts what you already think.  Type in a search request and you can find, somewhere, information that confirms what you already believe, no matter what it is.  If you’re in an area that isn’t moderated, trolls can suck all life and intelligence out of it, their voices amplified to carry around the world.

We’ve built something, an online world, where others can’t communicate with us unless we let them.  We never need learn what someone who disagrees with us really thinks because we can just sit among others who agree with us.  What happens when people don’t deliberately mischaracterize the beliefs of others, but instead genuinely don’t know what those beliefs really are?  The great majority of us (I believe) aren’t evil or ill-intentioned.  But how do we find common ground if all sides in the argument are only talking among themselves?

There are billions of opinions and articles on the internet, a universe of knowledge at our fingertips.  It could teach us, it could help us, it could open our minds to possibilities we’ve never considered.  But only if we listen.  Right now the internet too easily encourages us all to close our ears and our minds.

And, yes, you are allowed to disagree with me.  If you do, let’s talk about it, okay?


1. Zak R. - February 16, 2012

For such touchy subjects as politics and religion? Absolutely, we all have our blinders on. For other uses (such as talking to and asking questions of a favorite author), I think it’s an excellent tool. Admittedly, I could simply write you a letter (and that would take about as long to get to you as I actually have taking returning your last email answering my questions), but the immediacy of response and discussion that is available online really pushes it forward for me as a more effective system for communication.
There are problems, of course, with the text-based, “broadcast,” and anonymous nature of most internet communications. Anonymity is starting to go away with the greater integration of Facebook and Google+ (among other social networking systems), but it is still an aspect that, when added to the ability to broadcast one’s opinions, creates un-civil discussions like the one to which you are referring (I don’t know if there’s a real word for this, but it is sometimes known as “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Dickwad Theory,” named after a fictional comic strip character). Text also has problems of tone, especially when it comes to sarcasm or humor, but that is also changing as we integrate more sound (like podcasts, which are becoming almost indistinguishable from older radio programs—even to the extent of doing new old-style radio plays!) and video (thank you YouTube).
I have to wonder, though… if you tried to talk to people about religion and politics face-to-face, how often would you end up getting into a shouting match just like that? I think that likelihood has been going up lately, at least with the increasingly polarized and vitriolic political discussions occurring not only on the 24-hour news networks, but among candidates themselves (of course, that all pales in comparison with what passed for political discourse one or two centuries ago. Talk about mud-slinging!). I think it’s somewhat better for religion nowadays, though I should ask my Muslim friend how he’s fared on that front moving from California to Oklahoma, and those non-religious among us in the center of the country are often still feeling very alone.
Which comes to an interesting counter-point I would like to make to one of yours, which is that the idea of the internet allowing people to find others who agree with them is in many ways a *good* thing. That ability has contributed to increased exposure and connectivity for revolutionary idealists in the middle east, anti-bullying campaigns here in the US, and even letting otherwise tiny minorities (such as LGBTs who know of few other LGBTs in their area) find support. It’s similar with many atheists and agnostics who might otherwise feel very alone in their real life communities.
That said, I don’t think the internet can really make up for actual person-to-person live interaction, but it can be very helpful for minorities in a community to find others who can help them cope.

Zak R. - February 16, 2012

Also, I’m always annoyed when I can’t figure out how to get comments systems to let me use a paragraph indent. Grrr…

johnhemry - February 23, 2012

Good points all, especially about finding others when you feel like one of a kind in a really big world. I do think the lack of face to face makes a difference, that in person we transmit all sorts of feedback by expression and posture and other nonverbal cues, as well as by exact tone of voice, speed of speech, volume of speech, which can’t be handled well in online communications. In practice a conversation face to face is one of constant feedback in dozens of ways that could inflame or calm a discussion. (I think that’s why the three Star Wars prequels often came off with characters seeming wooden. Lucas said he took takes of each character and combined them with other takes of other characters to get the “best” combination, but that meant the interaction of the two people you saw wasn’t really based on those two people playing off each other in all of those ways.)

2. Terry Phillips - February 16, 2012

I believ your seeing a side effect – not the results of the connected world we’ve built. The constant feed of unfiltered information into everyone’s life’s has caused us to develop our own mental filters, to block out thing we consider junk. Most of us will also block things that make us uncomfortable as well. New ideas or different views are the most uncomfortable. The Internet is just a tool like anything else, we are responsible for using it wisely and in moderation.

johnhemry - February 23, 2012

Very true. It’s always our responsibility for how we use the tools we create.

3. NikTv (@niktv) - February 17, 2012

Yes this is the reality and it happens with people online every day, BUT isn’t it the same outside of internet? There are plenty of human beings that are hiding in their own world and are meeting only like minded people. If you try to say “no”, they will definitely at least change the subject or take it as offense.
By my opinion internet just brings this “on the light”. It shows us the bigger picture, but does NOT creates or boost this behaviour.
I personally found so many helpful materials, that made me more comunicative and able constructively to accept others opinions. Without internet I probably would of skipped 90% of them.
So yes and no 🙂

johnhemry - February 23, 2012

I mostly agree with you. In real life, though, you tend to encounter ideas and people you might well not have sought out. You have to actively ignore them because you can’t block them from ever appearing. That’s one reason I dislike the internet tools for choosing music based on what you’ve chosen before. What if it’s something different that I might like? With a tool like that, I’d never hear something different from what I already like. Whereas I have used the internet as you have to find things (music) that I never would have found otherwise.

4. Tim Mahoney - February 21, 2012

I think that the Internet has created more of an environment for communication, but it seems to be a one-way path of communication. Person A writes a blog entry. Person B reads that entry, because he or she has been subscribed to that feed, or because they stumbled on it via Google, or because another person has recommended the entry in another blog. Person B then comments on the original post or writes their own blog entry, citing or referring to the original post. Person C then read’s person B’s comment or post, reads Person A’s post, and then comments on either one, or writes their own comment or post. It’s a downward chain of information falling fast as a snowball, and growing just as quickly.

You do have comment conversations, which are great and really give depth to subjects, but the world seems to be moving in the direction of a monologue form of communication.

This also seems to present a Chicken-Egg kind of problem. There are few new articles, blogs, or comments which are not born from something else on the Internet. Well, there are, but a lot seem to wallow in unknown or forgotten blogs that are followed by a small audience, and by no one who has a loud enough voice to get the message out to the masses successfully.

For an example, I wrote an article about applying Newton’s Laws of Motion to Psychology (http://yieldtotheramp.mahoney-ranch.com/post/16118065569/keep-on-rollin). Without the audience, this may not see very much light. What’s funny is that I was also describing (without making the connection at the time) the state the Alliance Fleet was in when Geary assumed command. They had instilled many customs and traditions that were detrimental to the Fleet, themselves, and the Alliance as a whole. They were simply continuing what they knew, with no one redirecting them. Once Geary came into the picture, it was possibly his cachet as a War Hero that gave enough weight to re-direct the energy of the fleets motion. If he did not have that cachet, he may not have been able to cause the changes he did. If the Alliance had not built him up as this hero, when he was found, he might not have had the ability to correct the Fleet’s moral trajectory.

I apologize for the change in direction of topic. It seems to happen to me.

johnhemry - February 23, 2012

No problem. That was one of my points in that story. Social inertia or organizational inertia can require a lot of force to redirect. We usually see that force in the form of someone or a group of someones who can bring about changes. An odd thing about militaries specifically is that they seem to have an organizational inertia that keeps pulling them back to certain positions. A strong enough personality (or disaster) can force them temporarily into new paths, but once the pressure lets up they slide right back to the prior state. It’s almost more quantum than Newtonian.

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