Everybody talks about the weather. It happens in Singapore, where the weather never changes much, and in Melbourne, where four seasons unfold over the course of an afternoon. Why? It comes down to trust. Conversations with strangers are among the most difficult tasks humans manage: without any mental model of another human being’s behavior, peccadilloes and preferences, common ground is the safest place to begin. A few lines about the rain (or snow or humidity or wind) reveal the inner workings of another person’s mind. Face-to-face, we watch the other person intently, reading the body language, while we listen to the words being said. In the first moments of conversation, sweeping judgments about this stranger are made and welded into place. Their behavior finds a best fit with some other person whose behavior and habits we are already familiar with. A conversation about the weather isn’t idle banter; it’s the rapid-fire exchange of the human protocol.
Should the stranger turn out to be truly strange – prattling on about how aliens from Zeta Reticuli are secretly using their energy beams to melt the icecaps, fooling us into believing in anthropogenic global warming – we’d likely disengage ourselves from that conversation very quickly (and probably very politely), breathing a sigh of relief under our breath. Of course, we might share their belief in Grey Alien conspiracies, in which case the conversation would shift to an entirely different level. Talk about the weather is an opening parley, an invitation to a deeper involvement.
Some individuals are incredibly adept in conversational forms; some much less so. Some give you everything up front, others are more mysterious. In each case it’s a trial by fire, a strategic assessment: are you sufficiently like me that we can communicate? Extroverts can talk themselves into loneliness, consistently denying to others the openings they need to introduce themselves, while introverts will hang back from that opening until the moment has passed. The middle approach is best, a mixture of forwardness and reticence, but this is a difficult balance to achieve, because all of the human neuroses of rejection (at a biological level, a rejected human faces an uphill battle passing his genes along to subsequent generations) are amplified during the first moments of conversation. There are so many ways a first conversation can run off the rails – a misinterpreted word, an inappropriate joke, a whopper of a prejudice. Children, unformed and blissfully ignorant, have an easier time of it, for they haven’t learned what to reject. As we grow older, and into a better sense of our likes and dislikes, conversation becomes a minefield. It’s amazing that adults make any friends at all, but then, as adults we tend to seek the company of the like-minded for precisely this reason. We know we won’t like everyone we meet.
Beginnings are delicate times. In the social sphere this is most true in those first few words exchanged in conversation, when everything is at risk. In the online world, these risks are modulated, both amplified and attenuated. Over a decade ago, psychologist Sherry Turkle noted that the ability to redefine one’s self online could bring out profoundly extroverted qualities across a wide range of otherwise “introverted” individuals. Students who would never raise their hand in a classroom often become prolific contributors to class discussions when given the opportunity to submit their comments electronically. In a given set of students, some will be more verbal, while others will be more discursive, needing time to think through a response before presenting it to an instructor or peers. The classroom environment is not anonymous, unlike the wilder corners of the Internet, so any contribution carries with it the risk of embarrassment and failure. Yet, allowing individuals to define themselves through expository practices, instead of relying solely on verbal expression, has helped a broader range of students participate in the educational process, bolstering self-confidence, and increasing participation.
The amplifications associated with electronically-mediated conversation are not wholly positive. When the mediation is complete – that is, when there is no real-world embodiment accompanying the electronic communication – individuals have tendency to project their own preconceptions onto the words of others. This is a classic quality of a low-resolution medium, as first defined by Marshal McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Words are a very low-resolution medium, so the mind of the reader fills in all the missing details, ascribing all sorts of motivations to the author which may not be true. We enjoy an novelist’s words when they grow into a world inside our minds, but online, in the absence of the embodied experience that grows out of a face-to-face meeting of minds, we work overtime to fill the gaps in our understanding with stereotypes, assumptions, and emotions.
From the earliest days of USENET, the original Internet-wide bulletin-board system, “flame wars” have erupted in every thread, on nearly every conceivable topic – from atheism to dog care – precisely because individuals assumed too much about the other parties to the conversation. Too quick to attack the perceived indiscretions of others, and too slow to see their own faults, online conversationalists have a tendency to amplify the worst qualities of human communication. Some of this comes from the novelty of the situation: we’ve only had the Internet-as-conversational-space for half a generation. The normative behaviors which govern our conduct in the embodied world are being rewritten to encompass life online. At the best of times, this is a trial-and-error process conducted by individuals full of good will. There are numerous other occasions when individuals, fully aware of the disruptive potential of the Internet as amplifier, set out to deliberately poison the conversation. These efforts are frequently effective, particularly when the conversation is in its opening stages, and trust relationships between the participants are still being established. As a general rule of thumb, the longer a conversation has been going on, the more resistant it is to these sorts of attacks; the trust built up by the continuing interaction between all parties to a conversation provides an increasingly effective firewall.
Sometimes, for the very best of reasons, online conversations can turn ugly. From 1990 through 1994, I was a reader of and occasional contributor to sci.virtual-worlds, the USENET group for discussion about all things relating to virtual reality and computer simulation. At the time, I was deeply engaged in the engineering and development of virtual reality systems, so I considered sci.virtual-worlds an indispensable resource, a place where I could ask others about their own experiences, answer questions in areas where I possessed expertise, and share in the growing recognition that VR enjoyed in the early 1990s.
On a Saturday afternoon late in 1992 I read a post on sci.virtual-worlds which greatly excited me. An individual was claiming that he’d made a mathematical breakthrough in the computation of real-time computer graphics – the sorts of imagery you see in every video game – that would speed it up by a factor of ten to a hundred times. He posted his almost unbelievable results, and asked for expressions of interest in his work. I quickly wrote back, introduced myself, stated my credentials, listed my needs, and set up a meeting with this bright lad.
A few hours later, an expert in computer graphics – an individual who’d been working in the field for a decade or more – posted a lengthy rebuttal to these supposed “results,” giving a half a dozen reasons why these claims were absolutely impossible, ending with a wry suspicion that someone had left their computer logged in over the weekend, and that this post had simply been sent out as a prank to excite the more gullible readers of sci.virtual-worlds. This person, speaking from the undeniable authority of his position as a respected academic and researcher, essentially shut down all consideration, on sci.virtual-worlds, of this breakthrough in computer graphics.
As it turned out, the researcher was wrong. This innovation, known today as “software rendering,” became the cornerstone for almost all the computer graphics in use today. I took my meeting with the inventor (who quietly laughed at the ignorance of this famous researcher), saw the results of his efforts for myself, and knew the truth of the matter. Because I had no pre-conceptions (or rather, less prejudices than this expert) I was open to this startling, unexpected discovery. I got there first, and used that technology to create the very first VRML browser – over a year before anyone else was putting the technology to work for them.
Expertise is not enough to carry a conversation. Reputation may open the door, but conversations are not lectures. Trust emerges over time, and that which is believed to be true – rightly or wrongly – emerges from trust. The many parties to a conversation are constantly reinforcing their trust relationships with every message they read, and every word they post. Pronouncements made Ex Cathedra do not have any great effect on the conversation – unless the individual making the pronouncement is greatly trusted, and is willing to engage in conversation. This places experts at a disadvantage, because expertise carries only modest weight within a conversation, and assertion of expertise, in advance of trust, sours the conversation. Humility is the only successful long-term strategy.
Institutions do not have conversations. It is a capability only given to individuals. The voice of the institution is never conversational; it can be pedantic or persuasive, but it is never engaged, because there is no singular human to engage. Institutions aggregate individuals in order to maximize their institutional effectiveness, but that aggregation is not without its costs. (Nor do institutions maximize the effectiveness of the individuals thus aggregated, except as an afterthought.) The trepidation with which institutions treat bloggers within their own ranks is a reflection of institutional inability to winnow itself down to a single voice, engaged in conversation. The pieces do not match up. The blogger can not speak for the institution, but neither can the institution converse with an individual. This was of modest consequence in a era, only recently past, when our ability to conduct these conversations was restricted by proximity and synchrony.
With the advent of hyperconnectivity – the ability of every human being to effectively communicate with every other human being on the planet at little or no cost to themselves – the individual is hyperempowered in conversational abilities, relative to the institution. Individuals can (and regularly do) have conversations that confound institutions, because these conversations lie beyond any institutional zone of control. In a hyperconnected era, each conversation is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, where individuals can quickly form trust relationships (ad hoc social networks) around any topic of interest, exchange opinions, share information, and develop strategies. These are not the necessary outcomes of any conversational moment (there is a pure joy in conversation which frees it from any utilitarian requirements) but they are the potentials of any conversation. These potentials are inherently dangerous to all institutions.
The institution finds itself caught in a paradox: aggregation makes it powerful, but takes away its voice. When power was important, the institution prospered. Now that the cultural balance is shifting toward hyperempowered individuals engaging in conversation, the institution is under threat. It is being disempowered in a way that it can not adapt to without a fundamental restructuring of its organizational behavior. This is something that governments are only slowly coming to recognize, but educators (and, in particular, educational administrators) are already well aware that their students are more empowered than the educational institutions they attend. The desynchronization between the scope of institutional power and the chaos of unconstrained and unconstrainable conversational hyperempowerment presents a challenge that will transform the institution – or kill it.
Some institutions will be entirely unable to adapt to the new selection forces of hyperconnectivity and hyperempowerment. They will trudge along, facing a growing set of roadblocks, until, exhausted, they collapse. Some others will change by degrees, reacting to the changes of the environment, but always with some delay, and therefore consistently missing opportunities for advantage, as they change just enough to satisfy the requirements of the moment’s pressures.
The smartest institutions will embrace conversation wholeheartedly, and mutate into new forms of organization which favor transparency and the free flow of information in highly decentralized forms. Instead of a hierarchy, these institutions will look more like a highly-reinforced social network of experts, banded together in common pursuit of a goal, utilizing all the tools of communication and conversation to amplify their effectiveness both within the institution, and beyond these newly permeable institutional boundaries, to other individuals. This kind of institution can participate within a conversation, because individuals have not be aggregated, but rather, use their institutional/social network to become more expert individuals. They speak for themselves, but from the expertise of the network which supports them.
How does an institution manage this transition? How does it restructure itself into a network of highly empowered individuals? How does it avoid being drowned out in an a noisy cacophony of ever-more-vital conversations? Once again, humility is the only successful long-term strategy. The institution must recognize its disempowered state, and embrace the opportunity to relearn, revision and redirect its organizational energies.
This is not easy, nor do I make any claims to a simple five-step program which might produce a seamless transition from the aggregated institutional form to the social-network model. But consider this: The individuals who make up institutions are already hyperempowered in the conversations they have outside the institutional form. There is, at least, a place to begin. Without humility none of this will happen. We must be honest enough to acknowledge that institutions and individuals rarely surrender their own power. Yet the exercise of power inevitably breeds that which is capable of resisting power. This has now happened – across all human institutions. Humility is the only viable option.