Monday, November 17, 2014

Talking in Circles: Why the Internet Lacks Empathy




I’m on the Internet a lot, as we all are. Whether it is shoe gazing into an abyss of others' presented lives via their various accounts, doing research, reading articles, learning a new recipe, making plans for the future, checking fiscal statements, tracking something or someone, saying hello, buying something, wanting to buy something, arranging meetings, getting the news, staying current, or downloading everything. This list obviously could go on and on. The more I list these possibilities the more similar it reflects how the internet makes me feel at times which is overwhelmed and anxiety inducing.

Yes, of course the Internet is also a place where you can escape into, relax and have generative interaction but this past week or so I have to say that the majority of the time that I have jumped online it feels like some sort of toxic whirlpool and I have had to actively stay away from certain areas of it.  

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s all the yoga, pottery, trying to quit smoking, trying to reduce drinking, and my general regime to make my body reflect a lifestyle I want to more consistently live that has me so sensitive to what’s happening online but I can’t help but think that this is making you, me, all of use more unhappy. Maybe unhappy isn’t the right word for it. But I can’t imagine all this negativity is doing anyone good and more then that, it isn’t creating anything generative.

What I have noticed is that there is a quality of extremes that motivates many participants when they present something online. There is a provocation being made in visuals, writing, or some other presented form and most of the times these are done to stand out, create attention, and at times dissention. Once it is published, it is out there in the world and is now the publics. Yes, you can delete in some situations, yes, you can amend sometimes but there is an ‘aliveness’ given to the form once it is decided by the originator to let it go and for it to be online. Once that happens it is no longer the originators it is now the Internets and the Internet is the place that others can come to see this piece.

This is where things can get nasty. To ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ is a driving force of the Internet, which thrives on extreme versions of these polarities. This is where the camps are created. You can see this archived, accumulated and staticized most easily on comment threads that can go infinitely and begin from the point of origin on the piece’s release online.  Here there is an illusion of dialogue as people can respond and give opinion not only on the piece but also on others’ remarks. The originator is also able to dialogue in this way as well. I say that this is an illusion because there is actually little dialogue. It is more a reactive response and is a release of a point of view that is firmly held. This type of platform just gives a frame in which to place these held points of view to have infinite moments of reaffirming and voicing those views. In these threads there is very little actual dialogue because in this format there is missing the most important element for dialogue and that is human bodies.

Human bodies, is in other words, a person. Yes, a ‘person’ is represented on these threads but in this platform one can edit, construct, and remain distanced at all times. This reduces any nuance to a conversation and most importantly it deletes, nulls and ignores empathy. The human body (a person) not being in relationship to the other human body (another person) results in lack of acceptance and creates a lack of empathic feelings. This lack defeats any ability of persuasion which is at the core of countering opinions in dialogue.

Without this people are just arguing for the sake of argument. People are just gathering more people to their camp. People are just preaching to the choir. People are just finger pointing. This is a form of othering that is an issue that I would think people would be aware of and not want to continue. For those who may not know, the idea of othering is that a person will view, think, believe, impose, and maintain that another person is not ‘like them’ does not belong, is outside of their sphere and they will disassociate this other person (or group) and reduce them in all manners possible. For example, think  about slavery in America as a manifested extreme of this and think of race relations in America currently as a manifested entrenchment of this. So back to the Internet, there is this othering that is occurring through this extreme and this is just an impossible model for dialogue to truly occur.

Now, this does have some glimmer of hope because in the collecting of these extremes there might be means or ways to have dialogue because the inadequacy of this model is not rewarding. It is frustrating and circular and in this frustration and circuitous point making, the participants may reach out or be reached out to in a human body (person) to human body (person) way and they might actually exchange and have a conversation and a debate about the piece and the disagreements about the piece.

I am saying all this because I don’t think that it is okay to think that online platforms can replace or are equivalent to having a conversation and a debate with someone in real life. You can see this in the longest of conflicts, where political sides and ideologies have been endlessly fighting with wars, and lives lost for decades. There are many reasons why this has happened but the greatest one that has the greatest possibility for change is getting to know the opposing side in a deeper, more emphatic way. There is nothing possible with distanced point making conversations where it is more about stating beliefs then it is about engaging in conversation. Platforms online allude to this but in truth, well at least to me, this is dangerously deceptive and damaging.

In the end, things do often end as an, ‘agree to disagree.’ This position does lead to lines drawn, decisions made, camps divided but in the process of actually having and wanting to have real dialogue there is at least some possibility of empathy and understanding. Without this what do we have? Who are we becoming? How is it that we are treating ourselves and others? I’m not asking for no opinions or venting or disagreement. This of course should and must be allowed, but to me extremeness leads to closure and closure leads to hate and hate is just the last thing this world needs more of.