Carlos A. Gebauer

Carlos A. Gebauer, born 1964 in West Germany, is a solicitor and regular columnist of the journal eigentümlich frei.

Source: shutterstock Lighting fires in many minds: information dissemination on the Internet

Communication in the Internet era:The Challenge of Information Overreach

When spreading opinions tips the emotional balance of the masses

If two people sit alone at a table and tell each other something, then in the first instance what one person says doesn't reach any further than to the ear – and thus to the mind – of the other person. If these same persons are not in the same place, but in different cities, the reach of a postal remark between the two is no different. What is in this case written reaches the eye – and from there to the mind – of the reader. Any irritation between the two, any incomprehension, every agreement or rejection can be used immediately within this range as the opportunity to query, to criticise, to correct or also to ‘backtrack.’ In these constellations, the emotional balance of mutual sensitivities is achieved in close reference to the direct, objective content of the message. Depending on the skill and sensitivity of the participants, misunderstandings can be cleared up immediately and further dialogue stabilized. Even a clumsy word does not have the strength to destroy the interpersonal bond between the two.

On closer inspection, however, the area within which such a check of mutual disclosure and reception of information or opinions is still reasonably controllable, is surprisingly small. This becomes clear if one increases the number of participants of the verbal dialogue at a table, or the participants in a correspondence by letter by, for example, just one person. If someone eavesdrops on the speakers without their knowledge, or if their letters are read by a third party, then the range of each of their remarks increases from the start (quite) considerably. For in this case it is no longer just any old third mind that takes note of what has been declared. It is, specifically, a third brain which, in comparison with the other two – in this example of concealed listening or reading along – already lacks a very essential dimension of a complete communicative exchange: the third person cannot clarify his own understanding of what he receives by asking questions. His entire interpretation of what he hears and reads is completely dependent on his own imagination. And this has consequences.

From all our experience, even the first report of this third person to a fourth about what the first two actually said to each other and (from what one can understand) actually meant, turns out to be a version that clearly deviates from what was originally meant. Anyone who has ever received two, three or four different reports on one and the same event, and has paid careful attention to them, knows how different these – let’s call them testimonies – can be. If the recipient of the report, for his part, has no chance of asking the immediate sources of the information any clarifying questions, then what will soon circulate will be purely fictional literature about what someone somewhere is supposed to have said. In short: even after only very few information intermediaries, what was actually said and the narrative about what was said deviate from each other by an astonishing degree. This effect increases into sheer infinity when the intermediaries themselves – out of confusion, fear or terror, out of malice or in the interest of manipulation – deliberately give false testimony of what they actually believe they’ve experienced.

Until recently in human history, eavesdropping on others and passing on information to persons not directly involved was either the exception (because at best certain rulers had a pertinent espionage network), or the indiscretion in question was at best of little importance (because only Aunt Hedwig was interested in how much liquor Uncle Walter had allegedly actually drunk at the church festival). Even in the early days of the mass media, the differences between what was said and the narrative of what was said remained unnoticed for a long time (and precisely for this reason remained insignificant), because in essence all the narratives, carefully filtered by the newspaper and radio editors, didn’t contradict each other. So long as there is no obvious collision of the story with reality for the majority of newspaper readers, or radio and television users, the fiction can be maintained without any consequences at all. In a mass society, a powerful political leader only becomes a powerless alcoholic when the entire audience sees him babbling and staggering on screen.

The technical possibilities of the recently dawned Internet age with its so-called digitization allow the reach of all human utterances, both intentional and unintentional, to potentially grow infinitely larger. Looking at it the other way round, however, the opportunities for the recipients of information to ask for clarification are dwindling down to the infinitesimal. Today I’m almost inclined to recommend that all recipients of messages heed the biblical commandment: You must not make yourself an image (i.e. form an opinion, at least not a final one, that you think is exclusively right)! This is because the images in our mind that we construct from the endless flood of news on the worldwide web can in nearly all cases only ever be imperfect copies of copies of reality. Anything that moves in the world beyond one's own immediate range of experience is therefore a movement of thoughts in fictitious spheres of one's own, always uncertain assumptions.

And perhaps because more and more people recognize or at least sense this, there is a great deal of emotional uncertainty. The perceived social balance of stability that follows from the actual or at least assumed mutual awareness of each other's future behavior has been shaken. Everyone hears and reads more information than they can reconcile with their own reality. The number of actual or suspected inconsistencies is increasing inexorably. What some people mean – that is, how they arrange their subjective chunks of knowledge into an individual body of knowledge – is increasingly colliding with others’ corresponding patterns of opinion. Those who don’t make a conscious decision to stay out of everything and thus flee into ignorance, are in danger of feeling confused. With this confusion, however, fear increases for some and with it the willingness to take up the fight against a danger, which – beyond one's own subjective image of reality – perhaps doesn’t objectively exist at all.

Paradoxically, as a result of the overreach of information, the much-cited knowledge society of our day is therefore in the midst of a conflict of beliefs between subjective worldviews. This is not a good message at all with regard to the potential for aggression, which is well known for always being very great in religious wars. But it is also a clear challenge to one's own communicative behavior. Every statement should be considered and weighed up until its potential for irritation, due to misinterpretation, is reduced to the absolute minimum possible. Clear messages in respectful dialogues stabilize interpersonal relationships. And that can only serve the peace of society as a whole.

Translated from eigentümlich frei, where the original article was published on 16th June 2018.

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