I recently realized that the line “Markets are conversations” (familiar as the first thesis in The Cluetrain Manifesto) was born at least partly from my experience as a resident of many forums on Compuserve, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was on Compuserve that I learned the differences between flaming, trolling and plain old heated discussion. While I wasn’t a full-time sysop (discussion leader) I often came off the bench as a back-up, and learned a lot about good sysop practices from forums devoted to the subject.
Perhaps the most cardinal among rules enforced by syops was this one: no personal attacks. (Wikipedia agrees.) Personal attacks were a broad category that included unwelcome characterizations, ad hominem arguments and various forms of passive aggression. Most often, however, they could be flagged by the pronoun you. Written or spoken in the second person singular, you tends to provoke a defensive response, especially if it implies a state of being. When A says to B, “You are wrong,” A is not making a statement about what B has said, but rather about B himself or herself.
Conversations risk going south when one person characterizes the other’s very being as “wrong” — even though the phrase “You’re wrong” could hardly be more common.
This fact came to mind today when I read The Evolution of Society, Madness and Social Media, by Tac Anderson. In it Tac says this:
Anytime I have a visceral reaction to something, I’ve learned that it’s usually because there’s some truth to the statement that threatens my own closely held beliefs. This kind of fear is rooted one of two concerns: a) The truth is misrepresented and misleading or b) the truth is right and that means that I’m wrong (for the record it’s almost always that they’re wrong).
All of which is something of a corollary to a bit of wisdom I often give my 13-year-old son: “Being right is overrated.” We’re here to learn, I tell him. Not just to score points in a game that others aren’t also playing.
The trick in conversation is not just to listen, but to do two things that come hard for people with an unhealthy need for being in a state of rightness. One is to respect the other person as an original source of interesting (if not necessarily correct) things to say. The other is weigh without prejudice the substance of what the other person is saying. Neither, of course, comes easy. Both, however, are helpful.
The case Tac brings up is his own aversion to Nicholas Carr and two items for which Nick is lately best known. One is an Atlantic article titled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The other is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book that enlarges on the article, about which Tac says, “…once you take away his intentionally provocative title and approach, for the most part I think he’s right – about the facts at least.” Tac goes on to say,
The Internet, like every other technological advancement, is changing the way we think, live and work. But where I disagree with Carr, is that the Internet is not making us stupid. Instead I believe the Internet is making most of us smarter. But there is a consequence to this evolution: Not everyone evolves.
Tac adds a number of points that I agree or disagree with to varying degrees. Here is what I would like him, and anybody else who is interested, to think about: What if the Internet does not persist as an environmental condition?
It certainly won’t persist in the forms we know it best right now. Phone and cable companies, by whose graces most of us access the Internet, have self-serving ambitions for the Net that are at variance from the ideals of the Net’s founding protocols. Phone companies, especially mobile ones, want to bring the Net inside their billing systems, with metered charges for data use and national boundaries across which customers pay huge additional fees for “roaming.” Cable companies wish to become “content providers”, as publishing, broadcast and entertainment goods move from paper, airwaves and cable channels to new all-digital forms that display on glowing rectangles of all kinds.
In other words, I wonder if the world in which Tac and others like him (including myself) find themselves adapting so well isn’t doomed to become Business As Usual 2.0. That’s what Jonathan Zittrain warns in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. As Jonathan sees it, the Internet was designed to be generative. That is, it encourages originality and productivity for everything it runs on and that it supports — not just for the companies and technologies that “carry” it. (By the way, the old sysops forum on Compuserve was run for many years by Jonathan, who later co-founded the Berkman Center.)
I think the Net will get worse before it gets better. But I think we need to consider seriously whether it will get better at all. Recent defeats of the FCC by carriers make clear who holds the cards. (And I’m not saying that the FCC was right. I’ve always felt that “Net Neutrality” was more effective as a red flag for carriers than for helping its proponents’ legislative and regulatory agendas.)
Here’s what I believe, at least for now. The Internet, as the open and generative thing its protocols like to support, is good for humanity, for human evolution, for society and for business. I would like that to be right, but it might be wrong, and I’m open to hearing that.
Meanwhile, I don’t think we’ve had enough time to prove anybody’s case. And evolution will prove more patient than any of us.