Monday, May 24, 2010

The Death of Discretion

BBC News Business Reporter Will Smale released a series of anecdotes this morning about people getting into trouble through their spontaneous use of Twitter under the headline "Be careful what you tweet." Those of us with a sense of history know that this is not really news; it is just the acknowledgement that Twitter supports flaming as effectively as any other form of computer-mediated communication. The only change seems to be that the size of the audience keeps growing.

Communication is one of the ways in which we establish identity; and spontaneous utterances tend to give a more faithful account of identity than deliberated ones. When the spontaneity is positive, it may tend to facilitate understanding among the communicating parties, proving far more effective than any of the conditions behind Jürgen Habermas' concept of an "ideal speech situation." However, in the Newtonian tradition of "opposite and equal," negative spontaneity (even less a part of an "ideal speech system") can undermine understanding as effectively as the positive side facilitates it. Face-to-face encounters tend to provide us with ample opportunities to learn that discretion is the better part of spontaneity, particularly when one of those faces gets slapped. However, even when an indiscreet remark does not lead to blows, there are any number of paralinguistic cues that warn us immediately when we are getting ourselves (or have gotten ourselves) into deep yogurt over a spontaneous utterance.

That is what is missing in computer-mediated communication, the means through which the reaction to an ill-conceived spontaneity can be just as spontaneous, thereby immediately setting the wheels of "repair" into motion (or at least creating the opportunity for such motion). In other words this is yet another instance of one of my favorite topics: All actions have consequences, including the full panoply of our speech acts. The problem is that the physical world does a better job of putting out cues about possible consequences than the virtual world does, and one might say that discretion is the fine art of probing for those cues and attending to them. The result may be that, as more and more of our communications are computer-mediated, our capacity for such probing will erode through not being exercised; and, since everything happens at "Internet speed" these days, it may not be long before the very concept of discretion no longer figures in our working vocabulary.

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