Face to Face in Cyberspace

How is it that I encounter you here, in this space, or in those like it, in the spaces that we construct for ourselves and for each other on our screens?

I have, as almost everyone has by now, come to know some people exclusively through the media of the interwebs, through the mediation of our monitors and our applications and our processors and our infrastructures.  I would even consider some of these people friends, though I have never seen their faces, never heard their voices, never taken their hands in greeting, never been face-to-face, and I wonder how these friendships differ from friendships of the face-to-face.

Now, let me make clear that I am not naively representing the face-to-face as an unmediated relation, since it too is clearly mediated, both through the purely physical mediation of the senses and through the cultural/technical mediation of language.  We are never able to escape these things, and thus we never have an unmediated relation of any sort.  I recognize all this.

I am, however, representing the face-to-face as being mediated in decisively different ways than the kind of relation that is mediated by our various teletechnologies, and I am wondering whether teletechnological relation is able to produce the kind of relational encounter that I have described elsewhere.  My concern, in other words, is that the increasing predominance of the teletechnological relation, while enabling an increase in connectivity between people, is reducing the possibility for the kind of encounter between people that I believe is necessary to living ethically in the world.  I might pose the question something like this: Is it possible for teletechnological relation to move me in the belly, to move me to compassion, to make the other appear to me as my neighbour, even while remaining absolutely other?

The trouble is that I arrive at two different answers, depending on whether I am thinking theoretically or experientially.  In theory, at least, I can see no reason why the signs of the other, even mediated by our teletechnologies, should not be able to move me in the belly, to make me respond to the other as my neighbour.  My experience, however, tells me that this happens only very infrequently, that far more often the teletechnological relation hides the other from me in ways that prevent true encounter, that prevent the advent of the neighbour, that prevent ethical relation. It is not that technological mediation hides the other from me in essence, not even that my use and abuse of these technologies hides the other from me most often in practice, but that these technologies become I way for me and the other both to hide ourselves behind the layers of avatars and profiles and monitors and processors.

It is not that the other cannot be encountered throught teletechnological mediation. It is that most of us do not wish to be encountered, and technological mediation provides us with the means to hide ourselves away from any real anounter, far more effectively than the strategies that we use to hide ourselves when we are face-to-face, when we must rely on our capacity to lie and dissemble, when we run the risk that others will see through our deceptions, no matter how practised they may be, when we may find ourselves encountered despite everything we might do.

The question becomes, then, not whether it is possible for me to enocounter the other in cyberspace, but whether I can allow myself to be so encountered, whether I can find ways to be open to the other through the mediation of my technologies.

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2 comments
  1. Lauren said:

    I think for a certain subset of people (those, like myself, who are extremely introverted) it is in many ways actually easier to be encountered in the virtual world than it is in the face-to-face one. Due to a strong desire to avoid talking about myself, I have long since perfected the ability of making small talk, so I can have a lengthy conversation with just about anyone without them encountering the real me in the slightest. (I once had a meeting with a client who was also a clinical psychologist, who remarked at one point, “We have had two meetings, hours of conversation, and yet I know absolutely nothing about you! How did you do that?”)

    Of course, I have many real relationships with real-life people who DO encounter me, as you put it, but it takes a lot longer to get there. I find I am more comfortable being frank and honest when there is a buffer of distance or time, or at least I can come to that point more quickly.

    I do recognize that perhaps this is not the norm, but I thought it was worth nothing. I also recognize the irony of me sending this comment during a time when we were supposed to be having a face-to-face conversation, but for that we can blame snow, not introversion.

  2. Lauren,

    I don’t think that your experience is that uncommon. I think that many of us adopt strategies, both face to face and in cyberspace, to avoid or delay intimacy in relationships, but this is not exactly what I mean by being encountered. What I mean by being encountered is when the other moves me even before I know anything about this other, and it is encounter in this sense that I think our teletechnologies may discourage.

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