Good or Bad? – 7 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I hope you will accept that human beings are social.  Unless you are totally self-sufficient you depend upon interaction with other humans (1). Going out on a limb just a bit, I submit to you that all of the good things and all of the bad things in this world happen to us because we are social.  Our goal in life is to maximize the good things and minimize the bad things that happen to us.  Unless you like bad things.  But then doesn’t that make them good things to you?    I think “there is the rub.”  An example of this going on in the world might be one person making light of the prophet of another person’s religion – it’s free speech, right?  Then the person with the Prophet threatens the person making light – it’s blasphemy, right?  Each person is attacking something fundamental to the other and each is very likely willing to defend their position.  Which is good and which is bad?  It depends upon your social group.  This example is pretty “out there” but also quite real.  Versions of this scenario – hopefully much milder – happen all the time within and between social groups.  This book is not about identifying the good good and the bad good and the good bad and the bad bad.  It is about recognizing what is going on around you and self-assessing your part in it.

(1) I’m not quite sure how total self-sufficiency would be accomplished now-a-days, but it seems at least possible and I hear some people try – which is quite interesting in itself if you really think about it since if they are actually self-sufficient then why do they feel the need to tell someone about it?!  Maybe they didn’t mean THAT kind of self-sufficient.  Also, if they are THAT kind of self-sufficient, then you would never hear about it so I guess we don’t know, do we?  Okay, I’ll stop – for now.

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Why Relationships? – 6 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

Hopefully my brief introduction to the topic of relationships was enough to pique your interest to stay with me through the communication section.  Communication is near-and-dear to my heart and I find it intriguing, but then I made it through an Electrical Engineering degree and when I look back on it I think it might have been fun too… Communication is basically why the Internet (and a lot of other things) was initially so successful (and perhaps why it was invented, but I won’t try to apply limits to or impute motives to these brilliant people).  Making information available quickly, simply and widely made the Internet explode and continues to be a major source of attraction.

There are elements of the Internet now that were either there early on and took a while to notice or have been developing and have been adding dimensions that weren’t really there at first – for most people anyway.  Email was there to tell people things.  It was better than snail mail but was modeled more along those lines – writing letters and sending them electronically vs. ink/paper/stamp/envelope/post office.  This did make the process faster/easier/…  It changed some things regarding interpersonal communication, but not profoundly (at least relative to things that have happened since and seem to be happening at an accelerating pace).

Many moons ago when my son was much younger I successfully passed the geek virus along to him by helping him build his own IBM compatible computer (the infection process started sooner, but I think we agree that this is when it really TOOK).  One of the things he found and started to successfully use with his friends while they were collectively learning (read squandering huge amounts of their time in non-geek social circles) were IRC chat channels.  These were the precursors to what we call instant messaging today.  They were sort of like a party line telephone, and they could hop like a party sometimes.  I don’t actually know who started the familiarization process and won’t offend any of his friends by trying to speculate (and also won’t suggest that it started with his group of friends), but I view this as the beginning (arguable I imagine) of the social phenomenon that is – yes I’ll say it – “sweeping the Internet.”

IRC – Internet Relay Chat – was a program that ran on a central computer connected to the internet to which you could then connect (through your telephone modem – yes, you remember) using a program that you installed on your computer and then painfully set up.  You could set up your own channel and tell your friends about it, and then assign each other names/handles (10-4 good buddy) and then they could all send comments to be included in a stream-of-consciousness chat among your friends.  The administrators had options for rules of interaction.  I’m sure they used it to help each other through disasters, work through problems, arrange other entertainment, and arrange/discuss all sorts of shenanigans.  Our phone lines would have been busy anyway, so…

From my perspective, this was the beginning of something BIG.  It showed the promise that the Internet was not just about providing more/better/faster information, but it could change the way people interact in dramatic fashion – at least it seemed pretty dramatic at the time.  Things have changed a lot since then.  Every new twist and turn reinforces the fact that we are implementing and then experiencing a revolution in the options people have and the way in which people relate to each other.

That’s why.

Communication Wrap Up – 5 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I could go on and on about the history of communications (some would say I already have).  There are a few other things I’m going to mention before moving on.

Art deserves a prominent place in any discussion of communication.  It pre-dates writing (and it seems reasonable that in some form it pre-dated language) and was likely the key mechanism for transmitting culture from generation to generation until writing became rich enough and could be preserved long enough to be useful for this purpose and then they both became tools to this end.    Each of Art’s many forms (and sub-forms) seems to be a language, and hopefully you have some Art forms that speak to you.  It is an important and powerful mode of communication.

Control and the practice of writing was likely (invented and) quickly consolidated with those who had the necessary resources.  It would have been difficult and time consuming and therefore expensive.  The invention of simpler writing instruments and better quality “paper” makes the process simpler, but still very time consuming and expensive.  The invention of printing processes started to dilute the concentration of control of writing from the ruling and religious classes to the somewhat less wealthy and the business classes.  More and more people started learning how to read, and the ensuing intellectual development has tended to decentralize power to varying degrees over time.  Once enough people learned how to read, Newspapers, pamphlets and books afforded the opportunity for more people to gain increasing levels of knowledge.  Electronic communications – telegraph, telephone, radio, television – provided a progression of new ways to reach people quickly.  What we call progress seems to accelerate with the introduction of each new communication technology.  These are a few of the many major shifts that I will only mention as we get ready to move on to relationships.

Writing Beginnings – 4 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

We’ve covered a lot of ground with regard to communications.  Most of it has been inherently transitory.  You speak a word and it is gone from the world in an instant.  It lives on in the minds of the hearers and the speaker, but making that word live on for others takes a great deal of effort and only the most important can then be carried forward from generation to generation.  A large amount of information can be carried forward, but there are certainly limits.  There are also many things in the world that aren’t transitory – the human form, the landscapes, the sky/stars/sun/moon, etc.  Ideas, stories of our rulers and ancestors, etc. didn’t persist unless we made them persist.  Since persistence is good…

If we consider what written language probably started out like, it is most likely with people trying to draw objects in the sand/dirt to help them get their message across regarding something that needed to be accomplished or a narrative that someone needed or wanted to convey.  “I can’t seem to make a sound or gesture that gets my point across – wait, there’s a shape in the sand that looks kind-of like where I’m trying to go.  Let me just round out that corner and add/delete this detail and voila!”  And then “Wait, I could just start from a smooth plot of sand and draw my own!”  And.  The.  Rest.  Is.  History.  That said, though, what we’re discussing was all by definition before what we call recorded history so we can’t really know what transpired with any high degree of certainty.  The development of writing could have and probably did take many paths (and I suppose you could say it still does).

People – Steven Pinker comes to mind due to the currency of his writings – have written volumes on the subject of language.  Speaking or writing about language at length seems a bit odd when I think about it.  It’s a bit like standing in between two mirrors and adjusting those mirrors until you start to see yourself repeated again and again to what looks like infinity.  It is not infinity primarily because you can’t see that far, but it really is similar to trying to see back to the beginnings of language and writing (in part because you also can’t see that far).  I guess that showcases some of the versatility of language and writing.  The idea that you and I  or you and Steven Pinker can be somewhere “together” separated by who knows how much time and space considering this or any other topic is a truly amazing idea.  Honestly, I think it is every bit as if not more profound than the internet, but it is certainly not as timely – which is why we are sitting down together “here” to discuss the internet and not writing.  The spoken word is up there too, but writing is what really kicked language and many other things into high gear – over time at least.

Language Wrap Up – 3 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

We’re not QUITE ready to move on to the next iceberg just yet.  There are still some rather important things to say about language – and I’m sure I’ll just skip over a large number of other things that connoisseurs would likely spend a good deal of time discussing.  What I’m attempting to do with this trip down memory lane is to put the Internet into some semblance of the proper perspective.  If language was simply making word sounds that evoke mental images, that would be one thing.  That would simplify the transition to the internet significantly.  What I am saying is that if that were the case then writing a word (wait, we don’t know what writing is yet!) would be the same thing as speaking a word.  In a few cases, that is true, but in most cases words offer a narrative to another story being told by physical or other actions.  Your face tells a story.  Your hands and arms tell a story.  The snake that just slithered by tells a story.  Your words are likely an accompaniment to the symphony of information that is also occupying or passing through the space you and your audience are occupying or passing through at the moment.

If that weren’t enough, the use of language offers up other things – like common experience.  To make that even more powerful, you can use language to “experience” things you can’t experience in person, making a part of that a part of common experience.  I touched on the topic of passing down history and culture by word of mouth previously.  It is believed that much of common culture at least in the ruling classes was passed down by the use of professional storytellers or Bards.  They would make their living by traveling from place to place and performing the stories that represented common experience.  One would like to think that they were chosen for an uncommon ability to recall combined with a similarly uncommon ability to evoke the right images.  Their stories were also very likely tightly controlled by the elders from the class to whom they told their stories.  Of course other common experiences were passed down as well, and some of these would have persisted, but the most persistent would have tended to be the ones that were controlled and rewarded.  The point is that the abilities to communicate offered up through the use of language is immense.

Language Beginnings – 2 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

That’s it.  That is the extent of unassisted communications, which I define as communication without invention.  You could even make the argument that both the physical and emotional forms of indirect communication discussed above are inventions – the idea that you don’t have to perform the act to communicate the act seems a pretty simple distinction.  As long as we know that it is not, we can probably save ourselves some quibble-time by grouping them as unassisted communication.

This seems a good point to move to the TECHNOLOGY of language.  The processes of an invention – the steps you follow to implement it, the materials you use, etc. – is by definition the technology of that invention.  If you haven’t already figured out why I bring this up, it will likely become clear fairly soon.

One can only imagine how our ancestors transitioned from the types of communication we’ve discussed to language.  So far what we’ve discussed were ways of communication that likely involved imitation of the sounds, appearance and actions of those things we were trying to describe in an attempt to evoke an image of that thing in someone else’s mind.  Who knows how long we existed in that state.  Remember, we didn’t know what we were missing but I imagine communication was slow and difficult.  All it really takes to start, though, is to agree among the individuals in your community  that sounds will mean certain things.  Simple, eh?  Actually, it likely happened very early on at the most basic of level as the community started to adopt shortcuts in their efforts at unassisted communication.  The need for communication efficiency – i.e. protecting your community, trying to tell the story of the hunt or the battle, etc. –  was likely what drove us to the first languages.  There were probably just about an many languages as there were small communities at first.  At some point, people either realized or perhaps it was simply a fact that a better language toward the simple end of a language could make a real difference.  Speed of learning, speed of actual communication, richness of communication, variety of meanings that can be conveyed, etc. are all factors and there are likely many more if you care to dig.

Now imagine a scenario – a community is in the process of being “convinced” to use one language over another.  It could be through conflict or it could be that the leaders of the group realized that they could be more effective in some way by using another language.  Parents and children and grandchildren and neighbors and their families have grown up using one language.  Now someone comes along and says the technology you were using is not good enough and we want you to start using the new technology.  Even though this is simply a new twist on the same fundamental technology, IMAGINE THE CONTROVERSY!  “I hear that the kids will be able to communicate things that they won’t be ready to communicate until they are much older,” and “If they learn this technology, our kids will be able to communicate with the kids across the valley, and you know what those kids do, don’t you?!”  I could go on, but I hope you get the picture, and the picture is the same (similar) again and again throughout history.  I’ll try not to do this to you again, but I hope you’ll carry this with you – our situation with “THE INTERNET” is not new.  It is unique and different, but so were the other inventions that caused varying levels of social turmoil.  The turmoil may indeed have been either good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and there is a good chance that how each individual (was) prepared for it and how they approached the change made a difference in the outcome.  These new technologies probably won’t go away and we haven’t seen the last of them, so the best thing is to learn to use them to our advantage – right?  Well, I guess you don’t have to, but I will say that I believe you would be missing one heck of an opportunity (along with attendant risks of course).

Anyway – back to the story line.  We’re still in pre-history, right?  Probably.  At some point people began passing down history through the spoken word and we have at least vague outlines of a few that may have been enhanced to some degree or another (Homer, etc.).  History, culture, etc. was certainly passed from generation to generation (to generation…) somehow.  There are still some fairly significant things missing but I plan to try to get us back to the present fairly quickly.

Unassisted Communication – 1 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

Trying to represent the communication channels and dynamics of relationships with any reasonable degree of accuracy and richness is quite challenging.  I tend to view each human walking around as an encapsulation of the world in human form – at least that part of the learned behaviors and knowledge that any given human has managed to absorb into their mind through learning and then retain and be able to use.  The complexity of humans can be mind boggling and is certainly amazing.  If you then set out to model their interactions, things become very interesting indeed.  The simple fact that many humans seem to understand enough about other humans to please them, enrich their lives, be a part of groups, control them, etc., etc., etc. is truly a wonder.

I hope we can all visualize a human in the physical world.  We are each a container of skin with skeleton, muscles and other tissue. fluids, …  We can each move or be moved around in the world, and can interact physically with the things around us.  When we can see/hear/smell/touch/taste each other and the things around us, we have an enormous range of “unassisted” options for communication.  We are well constructed for, among other things, this type of physical communication.  While highly complex, since we are “built for it,” it is sort of by definition the “simplest” form of communication.  (Yes, I did just present you with a significant contradiction because it is indeed rich)  While today we take our abstract spoken language for granted to a large degree, recall that this along with most of the devices we use to communicate are inventions that are not a part of the “original equipment.”

The Movie “Quest for Fire” is an interesting window into what that world might have been like.  Trying to protect and then find new burning embers, and then discovering that another group had invented a way to actually start a fire – all without words.  Another approach to get some idea of what it might have been like to communicate before there was language, the closest you are likely to come would be to imagine how you would communicate with a person who speaks a language that has very few common sound-meanings with your own language.  What you do know, however, is that this person very likely also has words and language.  This may actually make things harder for you, however, depending upon what you are trying to communicate.  If you are hungry or thirsty figuring out which words correspond with these physical realities might well be a waste of time depending upon how hungry or thirsty you are of course.  Simply simulating motions for drinking or eating would likely suffice and once you have eaten or quenched your thirst, you can sort out the words and perhaps those words would serve as the start of your very own Rosetta Stone.

Actually eating or drinking to show that you are hungry or thirsty – doing the thing you are trying to communicate – is (I would argue) the most direct form of communication – let’s call this “Direct Physical Communication (DPC).”  The jump from this to trying to act out eating or drinking without actually eating or drinking to communicate need may seem like a very small one, but it is the fundamental basis for all abstracted, or indirect communications.  I’ll refer to this simplest form of abstracted communication (for our purposes at least) “Indirect Physical Communication (IPC).”  While the  distinction here is a bit interesting, DPC is of limited use so we’ll likely refer mostly to IPC.

Our path could take several branches at this point, but now is very likely a good time to introduce the idea of communicating emotions.  Emotions are not a physical reality to anyone except the person who is experiencing the emotion – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, affection, etc. Many people are very adept at communicating their emotions, and many people are also very adept at reading the emotions of others.  This is where things START to get very interesting and challenging.  At the most basic level the individual who is feeling the emotion can generally communicate that emotion or not – with some exceptions where things are more difficult to mask.  Although the reasoning is somewhat different, we’ll call this “Direct Emotional Communication (DEC).”  One of our learned behaviors is the acceptable display of emotion, which can involve masking, replacement and other techniques including of course the display of the actual emotion.  Adding learned behaviors into this communication mix leads to “Indirect Emotional Communication (IEC).”  It is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to know when one of these terms applies and the other doesn’t.  For that reason, IEC will pretty much always be assumed and so IEC and EC (Emotional Communication) will be used interchangeably unless there is some reason to know and then DEC will be explicitly referenced.

As a reminder, we haven’t gotten to “language” or other devices to assist in communication as yet.  It can be difficult for us to think from a different frame of reference, but I think it is important to keep in mind that language is not required for DPC, IPC, DEC or IEC (did I lose you?!).  Before there was language, people didn’t know what they were missing and I’m sure many believed they were getting along as well as can be expected without it.  In fact, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the impact of this communication level.  We continue to use it extensively today in our interpersonal contact and how well we are trained to use it can have a large impact upon how successful we are.