Even as computer-mediated communication is now embedded into nearly every aspect of life, the sentiment persists that written and therefore distance communication is intrinsically inferior. Here is the very interesting introduction from Andrew Feenberg’s classic article – written in the late 1980s – calling into question the presumption of superiority in the face-to-face encounter:
In our culture the face-to-face encounter is the ideal paradigm of the meeting of minds. Communication seems most complete and successful where the person is physically present ‘in’ the message. This physical presence is supposed to be the guarantor of authenticity: you can look your interlocutor in the eye and search for tacit signs of truthfulness or falsehood, where context and tone permit a subtler interpretation of the spoken word.
Plato initiated our traditional negative view of the written word. He argued that writing was no more than an imitation of speech, while speech itself was an imitation of thought. Thus writing would be an imitation of an imitation and low indeed in the Platonic hierarchy of being, based on the superiority of the original over the copy. For Plato, writing detaches the message from its author and transforms it into a dead thing, a text.
Such a text, however, can cross time (written records) and space (mail), acquire objectivity and permanence, even while losing authenticity (Derrida, 1972a). That we still share Plato’s thinking about writing can be shown in how differently we respond to face-to-face, written, typed and printed forms of communication. These form a continuum, ranging from the most personal to the most public.
Feenberg, A. The written world: On the theory and practice of computer conferencing. Mindweave: Communication, computers, and distance education 22–39 (1989).
Photo: Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher Plato (Source: alienaxioms.com)