Once again I see that JP Rangaswami, over at confused of calcutta, is waxing poetic over the Cluetrain motto that "markets are conversations. This time has argument is motivated by the Bengal Renaissance, which brought about a veritable explosion in creative writing. ("Between 1818 and 1867 there were some 220 different periodicals published in Calcutta, mainly in Bengali, freely discussing politics, culture and spirituality.") This has led to an interesting exchange of comments over whether or not the virtual conversations enabled by the Internet are raising or lowering "the social intelligence of our species." I have to react to this with an overwhelming need to vent, because, while I approve of debates that take place through the comments submitted to a blog post, I feel strongly that exchanges impeded by tunnel vision hardly count as debates.
Let me try to provide some context for my aggravation. On March 1, 2006 I was invited to give a seminar talk at the IBM Almaden Research Laboratory. This was at a time when the IBM effort in "services science" was charging forward with great vigor; so I saw this as an opportunity to exercise some sound argumentation on the basis of a contentious position. That position was that interpretation was a critical skill in providing effective service. There was nothing new about this, since Karl Weick had been saying the same thing for several decades; but I then argued that the capacity of a service provider for interpretation was impeded by a lack of understanding in five fundamental disciplines. Those disciplines (which will not be found in the department names of any university catalog) were phenomenology, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratology, and emotive valuation. This is my lengthy (Wagnerian?) prelude to the assertion that the confused of calcutta discussion about "the social intelligence of our species" is being impeded by a failure to grasp one of the most fundamental principles of semiotics.
That principle is the idea that any sign has a dual nature, whose two aspects are the signifier and the signified. Everything that was said about conversations in the confused of calcutta discussion, whether it involved printed matter in Bengal or an enumeration of the many things we see on our computer screens, was about signifiers. Those signifiers are the artifacts without which conversation would be impossible, but the conversation itself resides entirely under the aspect of the signified. Each of us relies on our capacities for interpretation to make sure that we are conversing about signifieds, rather than quibbling over signifiers.
This is why it is pointless to argue about whether or not the signifiers of virtual engagement (not just conversations) raise or lower "the social intelligence of our species." Such an approach is a distraction from "where the action really is." One has to take a broader view of the acts of interpretation (yes, I'm talking about verb-based thinking again) in order to grapple with a concept like social intelligence. (Indeed, one also needs that point of view to address the question of whether the crowd is wiser or madder than any individual member.) This is no easy matter; but, if we do not confront it, we are no better than the drunk looking for his keys where the light is better, regardless of where he dropped them.
To provide an example, let me try an exercise in examining the context in which interpretative actions take place. JP's description of Calcutta in the middle of the nineteenth century invokes memories of similar descriptions of coffee-house Vienna at the end of that same century (both heavily seasoned with caffeine and nicotine). This was not just a scene of conversations; it was also (in Chomskian language) the "surface structure" of a "deep structure" of cultural ferment. The "fermentation" would eventually burst out of the vessel that contained it, Europe would be consumed by a "war to end all wars," and the conversations of the coffee houses would be forever silenced. I am not interested in what is happening on the "surface" of the Internet, because I am too worried about what kind of brew is now fermenting!