Emotional Bandwidth

Because I agreed to give a conference paper on the subject, I've been thinking a lot lately about the way the net moves information — and because I'm such a contrarian sometimes I've been led to think about ways in which the net-as-we-know it fails to move certain important types of information. My plan was to move on to thinking about what we could do about those failures.

Well, time out for a short-circuit as to at least one item on my list.

John Perry Barlow writes in BarlowFriendz: The Intimate Planet, about two lengthy Skype conversations with Asian women who picked him at random to practice their English.

There's lots of human interest in it all, but what really caught my eye was this:

The bottom line is this: they reached at random out into the Datacloud and found a real friend. And I feel like I have been graced with a real friend in both of them. Given the fact that I've been getting interesting messages from distant strangers since 1985, why do I think the big deal? Why is this different? Because these strangers have voices. There's a lot more emotional bandwidth in the human voice. I'm always surprised by the Meatspace version of someone I've only encountered in ASCII. I'm rarely surprised by someone I've only met on the phone. But one doesn't get random phone calls from Viet Nam or China, or at least one never could before.Skype changes all that. Now anybody can talk to anybody, anywhere. At zero cost. This changes everything. When we can talk, really talk, to one another, we can connect at the heart.

The potential of establishing a real emotional connection is exponentially advantaged. And I honestly don't think it would have been any different had they been guys. In the days since, I've received another random call from a guy in Australia. We talked, very entertainingly, for awhile. I'm glad to know him too. (He wasn't trying to practice his English. He actually seems to prefer his version. He was just doing it because he could.)


Anyway, I feel as if the Global Village became real to me that night, and, indeed, it has become the Global Dinner Party. All at once. The small world has become the intimate world.

I'm beginning to think this Internet thing may turn out to be emotionally important after all.

Lots to think about. And although it doesn't leverage easily into conversations about governance as such, it may be another step towards creating necessary preconditions for interesting things.

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One Response to Emotional Bandwidth

  1. emptywheel says:

    I once made a similar point to a former professor of mine. The class was a globalization class conducted via technology simulataneously in Ann Arbor, DC, and Johennesburg. Some of the group projects were challenged by misconceptions and distrust and poor communication, and the professor was a bit mystified by it.

    But I pointed out (appealing to personal experience) that successful global business projects usually begin with a face-to-face meeting. You go out to dinner and drinks, you get to laugh with the person. But we were doing it entirely through the internet (albeit with voices–but there was very little chat time, so we didn’t get that personal side). We didn’t get faces until late in the semester, when we did a teleconference (which, when you’re talking about an entirely-white class in Ann Arbor, a racially mixed class in DC, and a racially mixed class in South Africa, is interesting, perhaps productive, but odd in other ways). You’ve got to have the phatic side of langauge to have a real relationship, I’m convinced.

    Anyway, my point was the same as yours–that you really need a personal voice to have a real discussion. Although, I will say, I’ve done historical work to show that “personal voice” can be approximated by idiomatic writing–which is of course interesting in terms of blogs.

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