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  • Listening for the Silence



    This is Chapter 19 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    The notorious sloppiness of computer-mediated communication is often attributed to its being more like conversational speech than like traditional writing. The idea seems to be that sloppiness works fine in conversation, so why shouldn't it work just as well in online communication? But perhaps the premise here sneaks within the gates just a bit too easily.

    There are several elements of effective conversation:

    The ability to listen

    I mean an active sort of listening -- the kind that enables and encourages, eliciting from the speaker an even better statement than he knew he was capable of producing. The kind that enters sympathetically into the gaps, the hesitations, the things left unsaid, so that the listener can state the speaker's position as effectively as his own. To listen productively is to nurture a receptive and energetic void within which a new word can take shape. Such listening is half of every good conversation, perhaps the most creative half.

    Needless to say, listening expresses a deep selflessness. And, if my own experience is any guide, the discipline required is far from natural. In fact, it usually seems impossible. But this does not prevent our working toward it, as toward any ideal.

    What about computer-mediated communication? Clearly, listening is still more difficult here. The speaker is no longer physically present. He no longer demands so insistently that I attend to his words, nor is my listening immediately evident to him. If I wish, I can more easily conceal my disinterest.

    However, the situation is not hopeless. Even in face-to-face communication I must "overcome" the physically detached word if I would find my way to the mind of the speaker. So it's not as if the computer confronts me with an altogether new challenge. It's just that I must make a more conscious effort of attention, actively seeking out the speaker behind the words on my screen. When I do this well, my response can still convey a quality of listening. Listening is in any case more than a mere visible blankness. It is a receptive participation that colors all aspects of the conversation.

    Silence

    Silence is implied in listening, but also in speaking. It is the place where the right words can come together. Without silence, the torrent of words becomes coercive for both speaker and listener. The words are automatic, unconsidered, expressing thoughts and feelings the speaker himself is not fully aware of. They run in ruts, responding in the same old ways to the same old triggering remarks. Silence is the dark soil through which the seedleaves of a new understanding may push through to the light.

    Silence is essential to the proper m