Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Internet And The Problem Of Context-Free Communication

Have you noticed the way modern communication is becoming weirdly context-free? I mean, have you noticed how on the internet every thought can be regarded as simply expressing something in itself, regardless of how and where it appears? And how weird and bad that can be?

I guess one more obvious manifestation would be the cases involving internet shaming for people who were plausibly trying to share something with a few friends. You know that story about the women who had a running gag with each other doing the opposite of what signs say to do? They took a photo of themselves pretending to be loud and disrespectful in front of a sign saying to do the opposite at Arlington Cemetery (for veterans) and put it on Facebook. Then, basically, their lives were over.

There's a lot to say about that story obviously, but I think part of it has to do with context. If you imagine sharing that photo before the internet existed, it seems to me there are huge differences in various sharings. Imagine sharing it just with your friend then putting it away. Now imagine sharing it at a large party. Now imagine you use it as your yearbook photo because you think it says something important about who you are. Now imagine it on a flyer for a pacifist organization, critical of the military.

These sharings are completely different. But on the internet, there's no context. There's just the photo, sitting there, being interpreted by the viewer however they want.

It's not news that being offended on the internet has something to do with expressions taken out of context. But I think the context problem is very broad. Suppose you're trying to say something serious about an important and complicated topic. In the real world, the first think you'd do is think about your audience.

I know when I am teaching this is a huge part of what I do. In selecting readings, in framing a topic, in deciding what to emphasize, in figuring out what examples to use, and in thinking up questions for discussion -- in all of these things, I have to think first about what the context is -- about where the students are coming from, what they already know, what their experiences are likely to have been, and most importantly, what is on their minds.

For example, in my Intro to Ethics and Values class last year, we spent a week discussing sexism. I selected two contemporary readings that focused mostly on two things: 1) whether you can define sexism in terms of individual irrelevant appeals to sex distinctions, or whether a definition has to appeal to the idea of a gendered hierarchical system, and 2) the gender wage gap, rational decision-making, and preference formation. We talked about examples having to do with sexy dress requirements for female restaurant employees and about gendered child care expectations.

Everything about this is contextual -- relevant to life in a 21st-century liberal capitalist democracy. Imagine that instead, with no explanation, I had spent the whole time talking about whether it is OK that women work, earn money, and play on sports teams. Wouldn't that have been weird?  But obviously there are contexts in which that wouldn't be weird: contexts where those things are thought to be inappropriate -- not that far in the past in some parts of Western history, BTW.

Conversely, if you were going to give a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of domestic abuse survivors, and you spent the whole time talking about that time Larry Summers implied that women aren't as good at math as men, and then got deeply into the evidence, wouldn't that be peculiar and even offensive? But for a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of science students, it might be just the thing.

On the internet, you never know who your audience is, or what they think is important, or what they're experiences are, or what they are trying to learn. And maybe it's just the sites I tend to look at, but I feel like there's this ongoing thing of criticizing ideas because why are we talking about this thing instead of this other thing, or framing things in this particular way? Often it's legit, but other times I think it's just context: not everything has to be the Encyclopedia Britannica, trying for that impossible universal context, inevitably failing.

You can try to create context. You can make a site or a blog with a specific purpose, and put up a ton of stuff to show who you are and what audience you are trying to reach and how the background is meant to help people interpret what you are saying. But you can't really control it, because on the internet anyone can come along at any time, and just look at the thing you wrote, and be like, "WTF is that person talking about and why are they talking about it that way?"

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