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Some Contemporary Communication Challenges

Some prefatory remarks seem to urge themselves, amidst pervasively intensifying destabilizing trends in our social life. We live in an age of ever increasing insecurity, due to such factors as erosion of "boundaries" (e.g., Kenneth Starr's inquisition of President Clinton's personal life...), and increasing personal helplessness vis-à-vis large, quasi-autonomous and seemingly out-of-control institutions (e.g., "the global economy", HMOs, and even "The Internet" itself...), on which our life, livelihood and sense of aliveness depend.

There is an overarching principle to which all else needs to be subordinated. The classical Greeks called it "phronesis": practical reason. Practical reason endeavors to arrange our social life in the ways which seem most likely to maximize goods and minimize harm, by trying to take into account everything. (This implies, among other things, finding out what all "voices" have to say, and trying to give each its -- his or her -- due.) Furthermore, practical reason always holds to its decisions only provisionally, keeping itself acutely aware that what we believe at any given moment is always subject to revision in the light of new information and further reflection.[fn.6[ Go to footnote! ]] Even Reason, understood as exact rule-governed thought, needs to be subordinated to this supreme court of reasonableness:

"...Yes, <whatever> seems to us here-and-now to be the situation. But what should we do about it? How should we comport ourselves vis-à-vis it? What risks can we imagine for each option? What factors we have not yet examined possibly bear on it? What effects will each option have on what persons, and on what environmental factors, and on our own ongoing course of deliberations in our continuing endeavor to manage our affairs? What persons have we not yet brought into our deliberations even though they might be affected by what we decide? What accounting can we give of our decisions? ==> How will all this look to each of the various persons affected -- including posterity, who will be impacted by what we do and do not do without being able to have any say about it?...."

Practical reason ("phronesis", reasonableness) is universalizing self-reflective conversation in which we try to make our lives be as worth living as possible. It is conversation which we try to carry on with, at best, only partial and often patently inadequate understanding of our situation, and in the face of all the vicissitudes of life, both natural (e.g., disease, aging, "acts of God"...) and human (all the ways persons do things which hurt instead helping us).

Among the human obstacles to our endeavor to live according to reasonableness are all the efforts persons make to cause partial interests to overreach their proper roles in life. These include uniquely modern forms of global, missionary (even though nominally "secular"!) quasi- and pseudo- self-conscious self-assertion: "scientific" reduction of persons to empirical phenomena, bureaucratic "rationalization" of society, subordination of worker's needs and aspirations to "market imperatives".... On the other hand, there are traditional [parochial, "ethnic", "received"...] customs, which persons cling to as so obviously "the only right way", that they generally aren't even aware that these are human productions, but, when they are made aware of the contingency of these customary ways (e.g., by a Socrates...), the people generally will fight to their (and our) "bitter end" not to have to recognize that they could change them, or, a fortiori, to do so. [Because such phenomena are neither entirely unconscious (merely "natural") nor entirely deliberative (emphatically "humane"), I call them, oxymoronically: "human nature".]

To borrow Edmund Husserl's words, what I have here called "practical reason" is our freely undertaken, never completeable, but always further advanceable endeavor to become responsible and accountable for ourselves. Our freely self-selected project, to borrow Karl Marx's words: to make ourselves on the basis of conditions we did not ourselves make....

Communication media always deeply affect social life, forming a framework in which all of life is encountered and engaged with. For instance, the advent of printed books, 500 years ago, led to elaboration of the paradigm of individuality and the "private" dimension of experience, and to the relentless objectification and "disenchantment" of the world. External reality and inner life, as we inhabit the former "inside" the latter, are largely products of experience endlessly recirculating through the filter of uniform printed editions.

[ Explore The Information Superhighway! ] Today, global internetworking of digitally encoded information -- the Internet, etc. -- may be effecting transformations of experience at least as radical. The new media, even more than print, seem, pervasively, not merely to provide new forms to contain and process existing content, or even to produce themselves as content (as George Steiner observed: most books are about other books...). The new media [as a kind of deus ex machina, and/or "sorcerer's apprentice" of the "white magic" of Galilean exact sciences of nature...] seem even to be supplanting established relations of life. The new media are replacing these relatively "known quantities", which, despite their many shortcomings, have so far sustained us, with altogether unprecedented "digital" forms, the emergent dynamics, and, hence, the viability of which we cannot foresee. Architect Bernard Tschumi quotes "the French writer, philosopher, and architect Paul Virilio, 'we are not dealing anymore with the technology of construction, but with the construction of technology.'"

[ Go to: The duty of communicators! ]I do not proffer a "solution" either to this issue as an emerging global social problem, or to the existing mix of social problems into which it enters, since any potential solution likely depends not just on individual understanding but also on mobilization of cooperative action ("politics" and "political economy") on a vast scale. I do propose, however, one thing we can do to develop that understanding, and even to at least partially actualize what it hopes for, in our personal lives and immediate social surrounds, and, insofar as we have power to influence it, in the broader political and economic world: [ Crescit eundo.... ]We each need to establish ongoing dialog about all our patterns of communication, as an integral part of all our patterns of communication. To institute these mini-communication combined laboratory-cum-project-assessment-offices in all our communicative engagements requires only the will of each individual to reflect on his or her communicative life, and the cooperation of two or more to talk about their communicative life together.

[ Crescit eundo.... ]In the very act of sharing their ideas about their communicative interaction, the participants can test those ideas against the evidence their interaction is thereby producing. Thus, the participants can revise their ideas and alter their interactions, to recursively improve, without limit, both their interaction and their understanding of it. Making such social self-reflection an intended aspect and purpose of all communication immediately alters the form of communicative life to begin to check -- both to verify and to rein in -- the effects of communication media. (My doctoral dissertation is a case study how to do this: Communication: The social matrix of supervision of psychotherapy.)

A key place to try such self-reflective dialogs on communication is in the work lives of the persons who produce and implement the new communication media -- we programmers and others. We need to examine our own communication processes and how they shape our lives -- for instance, how fascination with the technical challenges of new media may hinder stepping back to try to gain perspective on what constitutes balanced and well-integrated living, and how both the technical work process and its products fit into that overarching horizon which Edmund Husserl called: the "Lifeworld" (see above).

Such self-reflection would produce a new relation between living and working, in which not only are present-day forms of alienation overcome, but the work process becomes pervasively a process of improving the overall form of life, not just by producing better products, but by producing the production process's self-improvement as a life process (the structure of daily life, and the producers' personalities are co-products of all "work"). This would, ipso facto, yield a better life for the technological workers.

Thus the technical workers, in addition to providing products and services to benefit humanity (and a better way of life for themselves), would also exhibit a new paradigm of the good life for others to check out and see what value it might have for their endeavors to shape their forms of life.

The transformed technical workers could embody their new self-understanding in the products of their work, by incorporating into these products, whatever the products' first-order functions (i.e., "what they're used for"), also appealing opportunities for users to reflect on what they are doing in the use process. Using these in-form-ing products would stimulate the users' own endeavors of desirably shaping their lives.

These initiatives would help make the world "speak" again, not, however, in the projected voices of mythic creatures in nature, but in the ever-advancing embodiment of critically defensible humane reasons in the affected artifacts and social processes.

A[ Remember, reflect, renew.... ]s Marshall McLuhan observed, every medium bears a message: the changes it imposes on the pace, pattern and scale of life. New media, as content, have effects which are good and evil; as context, they even change what counts as good or evil. In Nietzschean terms, new media transvalue existing values, so that everything is changed, even the things they leave "untouched" (for examples, please: Click here). If in the global internetworking and digitization media revolution, reflective attention to its effects becomes pervasive -- and the Internet surely provides rich opportunities to facilitate such dialog --, that would be something new: the advent of a communication medium that did not just change life, but also enlisted and integrated general social intelligence into the very process of change. Such a socially intelligent process of change would no longer "just be", impacting life willy-nilly; instead, it would at least try to be good. As intelligent, i.e., as elucidating and evaluating itself, it would endeavor to be good words (benedictory), and, as process, i.e., as acting into the world, it would endeavor to be good works (beneficial).

The world-historical outcome would still be uncertain. But at a minimum, by thematizing the process of change: by raising the implicit nature of communication to the explicit event of self-elucidating communications, we would reap in our own present, here-and-now daily lives, the comforts and satisfactions of the community thus realized. In addition, we could then attest, with some confidence, that we have done all we could to influence outcomes and cope with eventualities.

"And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon." (1 Kings 4:25)

Free communication (as, for instance, urged above) arises from and depends on a material base of personal security, so that the speaker(s) are not pressed to manage their words strategically in the service of getting their needs met at the "pleasure" of those to whom they speak. An essential aspect of such a base is financial independence (subject, of course, to the inescapable constraints of being humanly mortal, and therefore unavoidably dependent on many things both natural and social).

I therefore propose as a specific objective of all jobs (and other social structures) that, whatever else they aim to accomplish, they also aim to make every worker financially independent. One performance criterion on which economic institutions (e.g., corporations and government agencies), and persons in positions of power in those institutions should be evaluated, therefore, is how well they do at freeing those over whom they have power from their dependency, so that the latter cease to be subordinate and become peers, and, if they continue to come to the workplace, they do so not because they "have" to, but because they want to. Such an on-going referendum, in which individuals ever again "vote with their feet", would, emphatically, express their affirmation of the goodness of life in the particular social order -- which might then justly be described as: material democracy.

This can be stated another way: Human beings, unlike other "beings" (ants, asteriods, electrons, elephants...), are not just parts which participate in (are encompassed by...) larger wholes, but are also themselves larger (encompassing...) wholes in which all parts and wholes participate. You and I and <whoever> each have a perspective upon "the whole world": the State, Nature, etc., as well as being included within those systems in the world. Therefore, a challenge for all communicative structures (e.g., nation states and multinational corporations, as well as families and other face-to-face communities), if they are to cultivate human existence as well as using it, becomes to make each person a peer partner, not just a role filler ("manpower", "human resources"), in these physically bigger, but ultimately, apart from the individuals who compose them, mindless, and therefore incommensurably lesser, structures.

[ For the 21st century: Slow food! Slow reflection on all the fast things running around! ]Leisure is the Basis of Culture. [ ]  [ Leisure: Luxe, calme et volupte is the basis of culture! ]
Learn why a city can deserve to exist (Louis Kahn).
Learn  about SGML (computer technology to add semiotic "reinforcing rods" to our communication).
Learn  about a potential powerful use for general encyclopedias in our new digital age.
Reinterpret the biblical story of The Tower of Babel.
What I believe ("The net").  [[ Go to 'This I believe' page via intro.... ]View intro!]
[ Learn about SGML! ]

Dec 2003: German auto makers build factories that go beyond postmodernism.[ Visit German post-postmodern auto factory! ]
Go  to my critique of "postmodernism" from the perspective of this essay.
Read  Garrett Hardin's classic essay: The Tragedy of the Commons.
Read  my doctoral dissertation: Communication: The social matrix of supervision of psychotherapy.
Go to website Table of Contents.
Return to Brad McCormick's home page.
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Copyright © 1998-2002 Brad McCormick, Ed.D.
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11 April 2006CE (2006-04-11 ISO 8601)
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Each person needs to be a peer member of a world, a family and a community: cosmos, oikos and polis.
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