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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
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 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