The Internet is the latest in a series of battles going back thousands of years to push the human condition forward. I am a programmer and I deal in information and instructions to transform it. This is what I do all day. It is easy, so easy, too easy, to get stuck in the groove saying that information is everything. And sure, if you were to ask a hundred people why the Internet and its spread is good for humanity, most of them will say something to the effect of bringing information or knowledge to everyone.
Some people get angry when you say that communication is worth more than information. Usually, they will refer to great literary works or foundations of modern science and contrast it with telling people on Facebook what you had for lunch. In this hand-picked comparison, they are right. Yet some of these people will then smugly retreat to their corners, safe in their belief that what they just pulled out of their ass is a universal, unchanging truth for all forms of communication and all forms of information. Not everyone who’s ever used that argument believes that, but some do.
There’s nothing I love more than seeing something I thought I had a pretty good handle on turned on its head completely. Let’s take a recent example: Marisa Lenhardt, an opera singer, (found via Jamie Zawinski) explaining why opera becoming less popular isn’t because of societal decline or smartphones:
You want them to sit in a darkened theater, silent, watching antics in a language they don’t understand? For three hours? Get over yourself. Puccini didn’t even want that. Puccini’s audience sat in the orchestra section of a lively theater, eating, drinking and smoking. They cheered for their favorite singers. They booed mediocre performances. They spoke the language. They understood what was happening, because it was modern. They got every subtle political reference. Librettists were broke artists who made fun of the bourgeoisie, and the common man ate it up. They turned Verdi’s name into the battle cry for the people. They didn’t sit and listen to operas in English, studying them in advance, trying to keep up with a translation. They didn’t want to do the work to enjoy a performance, and neither do kids today. And you don’t get to fault them for that.
I knew most of the important facts involved beforehand – that opera came out of Italy and that it wasn’t performed to the high-falutin’ crowds it tends to draw today. All the pieces were there for me to make that connection by myself – I just didn’t make it. There are details I didn’t know, of course, but the pieces didn’t fall into place because I got to know those details, they did so because someone presented me with a particular context and a new angle, an instruction: “look at it from this angle, draw these conclusions and you’ll all see that it’s crap”. We’re not worse people than the Italians who first enjoyed opera, especially since it’s less scrutable, topical and accessible to us. Our reluctance to take it in is natural because it’s a much more narrow cultural experience.
This doesn’t happen constantly, but I love when it happens. I love when someone knocks the alphabet blocks over and they spell out something I’ve never seen before. I love when someone twists my perception and I see the same information in a different light.
It didn’t happen by giving me substantial new information. I could have drawn the conclusion ten years ago, but I didn’t. It happened by giving me substantial new perspective. Maybe empathy. And it happened through communication.
So yes, even if you don’t give a shit about socializing, communication can have value, even if, and especially if, it’s devoid of new facts and information.