Saturday, June 7, 2008

Is the Web convex or concave? A meditation on dillweediness

[Note note: the draft of this post was written months ago. I'm not sick anymore, thanks for asking.]

Note: I am sick as heck. Bad cold. This is Day 4 of what, at work, is being called affectionately, "The Pox." I read an interesting post on Lifehacker about "Presenteeism," the opposite of absenteeism. The idea that going to work, regardless of consequences, is necessary. We're all the stars in our own life drama. So the idea that I'd put my own work requirements above the health and welfare of my coworkers isn't completely unreasonable; especially when we take into account the fact that we don't know what facts to take into account in terms of where/how we get sick. All this being apropos of nothing, except that I did stay home from work Thursday and worked from home on Friday, and now consider those acts to be somewhat selfless and communal. Whereas before, I would have considered myself lazy and weak. New wine, old skins. Yea.

Meanwhile... having been sick, I've been waking up early and watching The Daily Show on the DVR. One of the episodes from last week featured an interview with Lee Siegel, author of "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob." I did not read the book, and don't plan on it. This is a review of a couple things Lee said on the the show.

First, he made the claim that relationships mediated by electronics -- the Web, that is -- aren't really as real as those in real life and (?) those conducted over the phone. Hmmm... Odd that he wouldn't consider the phone part of the machine of the electronic mob. When it debuted, critics believed that the phone would end civilized discourse, as it allowed for communication without physical presence and, therefore, without possible physical repercussions. That is true (I suppose), as you can call somebody a dillweed on the phone and not worry about him/her cracking you on the mellon.

Lee went on to say that because of the lack of real presence on the other end of the digital line, we tend to imbue "the other" with our own characteristics, thus making the relationship both shallow and somewhat fictional. That's not a bad point. It is easier, certainly, to create a web (ha ha) of assumption when there is more left to the imagination. He then started talking about bad behavior on blogs and bulletin boards, what with the ranting and raving and flaming and invective and... and... and...

And he lost me. Even as an interesting antagonist to my own view... he lost me. Because you can't have it both ways, Lee. If the machine is bad because it is a concave lens that diminishes our perception of "other," that's one thing; if it is a convex lens that exaggerates the bad behavior of others... hold on. Can it be both?

Well, here's the thing: it can, if you're being a dillweed.

I tend to expect the best of people, regardless of circumstance. I assume that they, like me, want to get along, be friendly, be smart, do the right thing, etc. That holds true online as well as in RL. I've had very cool, long, intelligent disagreements with people in both places. Where it stops (again, regardless of media), is when someone clearly just wants to rant on their own, and has no interest in discourse; no interest in the voice of "the other."

Does that happen on the Web more than in RL? Perhaps. Comments on blogs are often not set up as discussion points, but more as stand-alone statements. And it is certainly possible to read a such a comment as if it were aimed right at you, thus making it seem like a churlish response, rather than a simple statement.

And so we're back to the Web, as Lee said, distorting relationships because of our tendency to put ourselves in the center of the whole thing. We either assume closeness that isn't there (because we want to see it), or assume animosity that isn't there (because we read everything as personal).

At least we do when we're being dillweeds. I've done it, for sure. A disagreeable statement that, in RL, might have been mitigated with a shrug and eyebrow-raise, comes across as totally hot-headed and unreasonable. And I've flamed back, too. But... but but but (this is the big but, and I like big buts, and I can not lie)... because of this tendency, signs and appeals to reason come across even more strongly, too. I've made some very good friends over the Web -- some of whom I've never met in person. And in almost every case, it is because their online voice is one that I want to hear more of.

Which is the same as in RL. We seek out those people whose presence is pleasant. And that's the case online, too.

Yes, there are more cranky, shallow statements on the Web. But there are also more chances for rare and beautiful flowers to spring up, in stark contrast with the dillweeds.

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