Following on the intention of posting each Wednesday, here are some thoughts on the state of discourse in our Net connected world…

In the late 80s early 90s I had access to and was an early adopter of the Net. But most discussion became fruitless. A rational debate would spin out into insult, or the terms of the discussion would be overthrown, or the rules of logical discourse abandoned. I stopped participating.

Since then, one way or another, I’m made my living off the Net, but only recently have I returned to the fray. About a year ago I was invited first by one then another channel to write a monthly blog. I was again exposed to the commentariat in a way I had long avoided, and the experience drove me to read deeper into the comments for news and blog posts, mostly with horror and dismay.

Have we really abandoned all discourse? I’m guessing there are more private places where meaningful, fruitful conversation can happen on-line, but certainly not in the wilds of the public blogosphere.

While there is, no doubt, some romantic well-wishing in the image of ancient Greece with its formal, public, discourse and oratory to debate the issues of the day, they did bequeath the world the so-called ‘Laws of Thought’. This form of rigorous logic spread around the planet as a kind of killer-app for discussion. Good debate was prized in many cultures (the data we have out of India, e.g., is impressive and fascinating) and when they got hold of this approach philosophy and decision making deepened profoundly. Since writing was a limited channel, what was preserved is some of the best examples of human thought.

Today, anyone can not only write but effectively publish for a world audience. Not that they have anything to say, or the ability to say it well, or any other limiting qualification except access to the Net. And since the channel is two-way, anyone, regardless of their qualifications can comment in return.

As a fan of the Net, I think access is not only good but of extreme positive value. But, there is an old Greek saying, that nothing great enters the lives of humans without a curse. It is the problems I am looking at today. . .

Qualifications to publish, or be preserved, was an essential part of pre-Net discourse. Scribes, later presses, have limited output, only some work could be disseminated and political powers rapidly moved to control the process. Quality of work interacted with established powers to determine what was produced. On balance, a fine body of work was produced and human understanding improved. Out of this process emerged authors wielding qualified, sometimes highly qualified, authority.

With the Net, all has changed. While journalism and academic writing still is seen as more authoritative, even these channels are diminished, degraded or dismissed. Authority has flattened such that conspiracy peddlers, liars, and other politicians are seen as having equal status to scientists and subject matter experts. Personally, it is quite painful when I have spent my adult life and much of my money on becoming qualified in my fields of religion and history and some fool pops up and slams my work using theories and data discarded by scholarship fifty years ago, and their word is seen as somehow equal to mine. Seriously?

Links from Popular Science Magazine and the New York Times on discourse and authority on the Net.

Annoying as this is, it is also a structural problem with keeping up with the scholarship, and the fact that non-specialists are simply behind the curve. It has to be tolerated at some level.

But, there is a more pervasive attitude that seems to be being exercised that is far more destructive: The need to prove the writer wrong. This seems to drive much of the commentariat.

Never mind the serious problems with comprehension (why are you arguing with something I did not say?), or contextualization (yes, you could read it what way, but the context tells you that not the point), or scanning and not reading/re-reading (how can you comment, particularly negatively, when you have not carefully read the piece?), there is a drive to prove to writer wrong.

It seems to be a function of contemporary pseudo-journalism. There is no profit in praise. You score your points by delivering barbs to take down the writer or the writing: you get status, page reads, eyeballs, clicks, in other words, attention. Critique creates traffic, but is it right?

Let me remind you, as the Klingon say, to get honor, give honor. Think about it for a moment before you ding me for quoting science fiction (I’ll take wisdom where I can find it), and then contemplate this:

Courtesy derives from the ability to wield deadly force. Whether it is two knights, two samurai, or two gunmen with six-shooters, each of these, and many other, cultures developed courtesy as those two wielders of death eyed each other and realized they did not know who would live. The smart ones (the survivors) developed face-saving methods for backing down from a fight. From the noble and royal courts where this developed, the behavior was generalized through society and became ‘courtesy’.

But you can’t just reach though the screen and throttle the fool insulting you, and they know it. Behind their screen the cowards wield words and images to hurt and after a thousand cuts to the soul, some will even die. Only a change in culture and values will change this behavior. Some of the anti-troll campaigns are striving to do this. I pray they work.

But there is another front that worries me. As truth and lies become all equally valid and hard to distinguish in this turbulent and insistent medium, as we react unthinking to the intellectual or emotional provocation of the onslaught of contemporary communications we are beginning to achieve ‘newspeak’. This was the slow process of social and political oppression used by Oceania in Orwell’s 1984. Newspeak was intended to dissociate all communications from rational thought, reducing speech to a reflex.

With Newspeak, even if you can think it, which gets harder as the words fail, you still conform in speech and action to the will of society, because speech no longer has real meaning and action is shackled by threat.

This is double-plus ungood. . .