Friday, July 22, 2011

How the Internet shapes decisions — a Quaker's perspective

Communicating via e-mail, texting and Facebook exchanges present a host of inherent problems. Unless you are a Writer (that’s with a capital “W”), such communication is often one-dimensional, lacking inflection, dramatic pauses, and texture.

If you agree those limitations pose problems, consider the loss Quakers experience as they try conducting business on the internet.

Traditionally Quakers rely heavily on silent "gathered" reflection to discern what to do. Yet silence “plays” about as well on the internet as it does on talk radio. Imagine Rush Limbaugh interrupting a debate (usually one-sided) with “Let’s pause a moment in silence to consider what the caller is saying.”

Quaker silence gets even more complicated because Friends seek to be “spirit-led” in the stillness of reflection and meditation. When was the last time you sought the spirit as you were e-mailing or texting? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (it is more likely in the pauses of text exchanges than in, say, board room discussions or political debates), but it’s increasingly unlikely in this rapid-fire world.

For many Quakers, “spirit-led” means led by God. As a Friend recently commented, “When I look into the eyes of another, I am looking into the eyes of God.” The comment comes from the core Quaker belief that there is “that of God (or the Spirit, or both) in everyone.”

But if you aren’t looking at another person, you are unlikely to fully feel in the presence of their divinity. And if they are not looking into your eyes, your own divine presence may be forgotten. Our communication is shaped by that presence, or, alas, lack of it.

I raise these questions because of the tendency to conduct more and more business through the internet, conference calls, and, yes, video conferencing. I’m suggesting, as many others have, that every medium shapes its content — and hence the outcome of communication.

We all should ask ourselves how our decisions are altered by the medium we choose. And then we should consider what we might have decided had we met face-to-face — sharing in timely silence, allowing the “spirit” to lead us, seeing the divine presence in each other’s eyes.

Question: How might the decisions of our democratic institutions (Congress, the judicial system, elections) be different if they adopted these practices?

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Blogger Tmothy Travis said...

I am not satisfied with the "business" conducted by phone or on the internet although I will add sometimes that conducted in person is a little perfunctory, too.

(By the way, when someone says something is or was "spirit led" I wonder why they would say--especially about an idea or experience of theirs or, in the negative, about someone else. It's like whenever I hear someone say I can trust him/her about something I always wonder what conclusion I should draw from their saying so?)

Perhaps like cell phone use in general or integrating bicycles into urban traffic in the US it's something we have to learn to do and that will take some time.

I read some correspondence once between Joel Bean and Rufus Jones, not to mention some letters from Margaret Fell, that seemed as though the correspondents were pretty well connected, spiritually.

Perhaps it's one more reality of contemporary life that is so different from the lives of those whose experience developed the processes with which we struggle today that the two, together, are not very functional

11:04 AM  
Blogger Pat Pope said...

Well, one thing is for sure: people are emboldened behind a computer screen and say things they would never say to someone face-to-face. I received a slanderous e-mail from someone once that I'm pretty sure they would not have had the guts to deliver in person. The closest they came one day was telling me over the phone, "I have a problem with you". It takes a lot to look someone in the eye and hash things out or tell the unbridled truth and most people aren't willing to pay the price of doing so. When it does happen, it's usually very negative because we have not learned how to tell the truth and confront well. Thus, we get screaming matches and insults instead of reasoned debate and dialogue.

How might decisions be different if our government adopted these practices? Well first of all, they'd have to deal with an outraged constituency that wants progress. People feel as though they've sent people to Washington to "make things happen", not sit around playing patty cake (which is how some people would perceive it). America is very action-oriented in nature, so it would be a hard sell. But imagine the things that could get hashed out if we really listened to one another and considered all sides? It would also be a very time-consuming process, which would require a cultural shift.

2:19 PM  
Blogger RantWoman said...

I respectfully dissent:

My experience is that God shows up whether or not my looking into another's eyes will show me any more fog and blur than I get looking at other things. If I need a metaphorical way of looking into the face of God, why NOT start with email.

I quite like conference calls. I cannot see a whole lot of non-verbal communication. On a conference call, no one has non-verbal queues so things proceed on a more equal basis, well except if someone has a hearing impairment.

Millions of people successfully use email and manage to maintain all kinds of standards of centered, respectful, businesslike communication, call each other on communications outrages, and get work done. I am continually astounded by the number of Quakers who think a single standard of truth about this possibility somehow goes past them.

I consider email a godsend in terms of respecting others' schedules and work habits. If something important is on my mind at 11:00 pm, long past Quaker midnight for many around me, I write an email. The person can respond or not. Sometimes I remember to call and follow up. Sometimes having send email I have another place to look when I lose track of something.

I think information overload is a different issue, but I am struck sometimes about how an electronic exchange can produce the same scope of thought and unexpected turns as happens in a fully grounded Meeting for Business. But perhaps I have a unique vision about this.

11:24 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home