Review of Onora O’Neill “A Philosopher Looks at Digital Communication”

Among the distant ancestors by Onora O’Neill A philosopher looks at digital communication (Cambridge University Press) is a work by Plato, the Phaedrusin which Socrates expresses doubts about telecommunications technology.

Dialogue is not usually understood in these terms, of course. But the technology that annoys Socrates is the written word, which allows a message to be stored and retrieved, minus the context in which it was created or the nonverbal cues that accompany proximity to a speaker. Socrates tells a legend about the Egyptian god who invented writing and showed it to the pharaoh. “This discovery which is yours”, specifies the king, “will create oblivion in the heart of the learners, because they will not use their memories; they will rely on external written characters and not remember themselves. The new technology will not give its users access to the truth, he adds, “but only to a semblance of the truth; they will hear many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and generally know nothing; they will be tedious company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

This royal complaint comes late in the text. So far, Socrates and his friend Phaedrus have discussed a number of issues that affect even face-to-face communication: indifference to the truth, the seduction of the unwary, and the ill effect that a gifted but amoral speaker can have on the public. . Writing only makes things worse. The messages “shuffle about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them”, says Socrates, and their meaning may be deliberately “mistreated or abused”, like an orphan, since there is “no parent for the protect, and they cannot protect or defend themselves.An irony of the Phaedrus will strike the reader only later: Socrates, who wrote nothing, presents this argument in a text illustrating the subtle literary art of Plato.

But pointing out the similarities between the PhaedrusCriticism of writing and complaints about digital media (e.g. users will “hear a lot and learn nothing; they will come across as all-knowing and generally know nothing”) generally bounce in favor of Silicon Valley because just as much proof that the Luddites have always been with us. A less dismissive response would draw another lesson: any means of communication will have inherent or intrinsic potentials to go off the rails, distort or falsify meaning or generate unintended effects.

O’Neill, Honorary Emeritus Professor at the University of Cambridge, identifies three aspects of any act of communication, regardless of the medium: “What the authors seek to communicate must be accessible to the recipient(s) , must be intelligible to them and must be assessable by them in ways that support understanding and interpretation, and allow for forms of control and challenge.(Plato anticipated his list but was less clear.) necessarily come to some assessment of one’s respect or competence for the “relevant epistemic and ethical norms and standards” relevant to a given message, and this is the case regardless of the technology involved.

What distinguishes the menu from the digital tools currently on offer is that they make the means of communication available (“accessible,” in O’Neill’s formulation) on a scale once unimaginable. At the same time, writes O’Neill, “no prior communication technology has offered such rich opportunities for disrupting evaluability by redirecting or controlling, targeting or suppressing both what is communicated and information about its authors and recipients”. the Phaedrus treated the written word as subject to the same vulnerabilities, but on a scale that now appeared infinitesimal in contrast to the volume of communication that occurred in a given twenty-first century blink of an eye.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent article on Atlantic website, “Why the Last 10 Years of American Life Have Been Especially Stupid,” explains some of the cumulative effects of accessibility without the ability to assess. O’Neill is less interested in specific consequences than in how the status quo in digital communications is now perpetuated and reinforced by certain ways of framing the act of communication.

One trend she identifies is “libertarian versions of populism…in which freedom of expression is seen as central, but other ethically and epistemically acceptable norms of communication are ignored or perhaps taken for granted.” This attitude recognizes “no requirement to be or seek to be accessible, intelligible or assessable by others”. In his own words, such an expression barely counts as a communication.

The author does not give examples, but one of them immediately comes to mind: many comments on YouTube boil down to pure expression, without compromising on the slightest concern to communicate a lot . This may not be problematic in itself, but taking it as normative seems to imply a corollary: if any statement receives the status of “expression”, a message which Is seeking to meet “relevant epistemic and ethical norms and standards” does not particularly deserve public attention.

The crux of the matter is a passage the author quotes from another British philosopher, Bernard Williams: is not unregulated at all. People cannot come from outside, speak when they feel like it, make endless useless or insulting interventions, etc. they cannot invoke the right to it, and no one thinks that things would go better in the direction of the truth if they could.

Flood the online space with anonymous (and in some cases computer-generated) speech also undermines actual communication, with its expectation that a message will be subject to “forms of scrutiny and challenge” by recipients. “If those with the power to control or finance digital communication cannot be identified,” writes O’Neill, “it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hold them to account, even if they promote false and misleading claims, suppress material information, misrepresent public debate, manipulate evidence or promote propaganda”.

Implicit in his phrase “perhaps impossible” is more optimism than the situation inspires – as if O’Neill thinks that an agenda of regulation and reform could further align the Internet with “institutions that expressly to find out the truth,” said Bernard Williams. These institutions were created around the written word, and largely by it, to some extent with the intention of limiting the negative potentialities that Plato’s dialogue already considered in the 4th century BC. Our discursive regime owes more to the wisdom of Mark Zuckerberg, who summed up his doctrine in one sentence: “Go fast and break things.”

Comments are closed.