Listening for the Silence

This is Chapter 19 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

The notorious sloppiness of computer-mediated communication is often attributed to its being more like conversational speech than like traditional writing. The idea seems to be that sloppiness works fine in conversation, so why shouldn't it work just as well in online communication? But perhaps the premise here sneaks within the gates just a bit too easily.

There are several elements of effective conversation:

The ability to listen

I mean an active sort of listening -- the kind that enables and encourages, eliciting from the speaker an even better statement than he knew he was capable of producing. The kind that enters sympathetically into the gaps, the hesitations, the things left unsaid, so that the listener can state the speaker's position as effectively as his own. To listen productively is to nurture a receptive and energetic void within which a new word can take shape. Such listening is half of every good conversation, perhaps the most creative half.

Needless to say, listening expresses a deep selflessness. And, if my own experience is any guide, the discipline required is far from natural. In fact, it usually seems impossible. But this does not prevent our working toward it, as toward any ideal.

What about computer-mediated communication? Clearly, listening is still more difficult here. The speaker is no longer physically present. He no longer demands so insistently that I attend to his words, nor is my listening immediately evident to him. If I wish, I can more easily conceal my disinterest.

However, the situation is not hopeless. Even in face-to-face communication I must “overcome” the physically detached word if I would find my way to the mind of the speaker. So it's not as if the computer confronts me with an altogether new challenge. It's just that I must make a more conscious effort of attention, actively seeking out the speaker behind the words on my screen. When I do this well, my response can still convey a quality of listening. Listening is in any case more than a mere visible blankness. It is a receptive participation that colors all aspects of the conversation.


Silence is implied in listening, but also in speaking. It is the place where the right words can come together. Without silence, the torrent of words becomes coercive for both speaker and listener. The words are automatic, unconsidered, expressing thoughts and feelings the speaker himself is not fully aware of. They run in ruts, responding in the same old ways to the same old triggering remarks. Silence is the dark soil through which the seedleaves of a new understanding may push through to the light.

Silence is essential to the proper management of a conversation. Only when I am silent can another contribute in a balancing way. Only when the whole group regularly punctuates its discourse with silences is there a chance for the conversation to be formed consciously as a communal work of art instead of running on wildly under its own power.

How does an electronic discussion group incorporate a discipline of silence? I'm not sure to what extent it is possible. But each contributor can at least exercise such a discipline within himself, weighing each remark before submitting it. The familiar advice about writing a response, then waiting a day before mailing it, is often appropriate. So, too, one can give place to silence in contemplating the shape of the conversation as a whole -- as one would a painting before adding a new stroke. Admittedly, online discussions are so often utterly random and shapeless that it hardly seems worth the effort. This is not surprising, since creative silence is a rare thing even in our deeply personal conversations. Nevertheless, there is a goal we can work toward here.

Respect for the word

The word is the instrument of our meanings. Only with words can a human being mean something. In this sense, every meaning- gesture is a “word.” There is no activity we can properly call human that is not a kind of speaking -- whether it occurs in a conversation, on a ballet stage, or in a sports stadium.

Our ability to convey meaning depends on two things. We need an established, shared vocabulary of some sort. And we need to employ that vocabulary in a distinctive way, impressing our meanings -- which is to say, ourselves -- upon it. To whatever extent this latter effort is superfluous, we are passing along empty information.”/1/ For meanings are not simply given in our words, as if those words were containers; meaning arises dynamically in the gaps between the words -- but does so in part because of the particular words we have used.

That is why machine translation only works (to some extent) with highly formalized (that is, relatively empty) vocabularies typical of certain sciences and scholarly disciplines. Such languages are designed to eliminate all meaning, to squeeze out every contaminant that might infect the spaces between the words.

Computers, so far as they act in their own right, are exchangers of information, not meaning. They do not learn from the gaps between words. So there is no need for a computer to apply the disciplines of listening and silence. There is nothing to listen for, no human meaning to take form in the silences. The transactions are automatic, given solely by what is “contained in” the words -- which is a purely formal emptiness.

As we embrace the age of information and all the tools for processing information, it is well to keep asking: where in all this is the listening? Where is the silence and the meaning? In all the discussion of information, one rarely hears a clear distinction articulated between automatic processing and human conversation. The distinction matters.

Attention to the larger human context

Conversing is the way we are human. We are not machines exchanging data; rather, we should expect that our every meeting is fated; that the way we handle ourselves may help someone else along the way, or else cause him to stumble; that we have something important to learn from the encounter -- all the more so if we find ourselves irritated, angry, or otherwise derailed from constructive response.

Online flame wars have attracted much attention, leading some to ask whether electronic communication encourages undue emotional outbursts. The question is worth asking, but I wonder whether the more dangerous symptoms lie at the other end of the spectrum. Anger is at least an indication that there is something personal at stake, even if we are not fully conscious of it. What if we lose the personal altogether?

One can imagine businesslike networks of communication that verge increasingly upon the “ideal” of pure, automatic information exchange. One might even suspect that this is the required direction of movement, since, for reasons of efficiency, we must transfer responsibility for more and more of our business communication to software. We who must merge our own efforts with those of our machines cannot help feeling ourselves pulled toward the machines. How do we pay attention to the person on the other end when it's unclear who that person is -- if he is anyone at all -- amid the mechanisms?

To respond to a system as if it were a person becomes downright silly. (Do I apologize to the software for my mistakes?) We can, however, read every system as the human expression that it ultimately is, and then act accordingly. This could mean refusing to reply to a computerized suite of telephone recordings, opting instead for the human speaker. It could mean recognizing that a particular computer- based system expresses so fundamental a denial of the human being that the only acceptable response is to unplug one's connection -- or even to carry out some strategy of “technological disobedience.”

I am not being facetious here. Any such reactions will necessarily be highly personal -- which is not another way of saying they are unimportant. Quite the contrary; from the sum total of such reactions we will determine the future shape of technological society. And the more radical responses at least have this merit: they take the system seriously, rather as we must take people seriously. These responses are vivid testimony to the presence of a human being at some point in the system. Our need for such reminders may become acute.

Filtering out the human being

Such, then, are a few features of conversation: listening, silence, respect for the words that make communication possible, and attention to the larger human context of all meaningful communication. Of course, the contrast between “good practice” and reality can be painful. I have lately been asking myself about the effects of the peculiar scanning mode I find myself reverting to when perusing a much-too-full electronic mailbox or discussion folder. Not only is it uncomfortable to eyes and head, but it reminds me of the state I can fall into when listening to a rather dull lecture: I drowsily follow the words and phrases at a certain superficial level (so that I would immediately perk up if the lecturer interjected a wholly absurd sentence), and yet engage in no creative interaction with the speaker's meaning at all. I just track along with the surfaces of the words -- behaving rather like an electronic search tool, paying attention to mere word sequences rather than meanings.

Can I even make it an ideal to listen attentively when, as happens so often, I must sift through masses of half-considered words on my computer screen -- many of them uninvited, of little interest, and from unknown sources? Full attention would sap my energies and prevent “getting the job done.” And yet, this habit pretty well encompasses a denial of every principle discussed above. To receive any language this superficially damages us, I suspect. Penetrating the thought of another requires an active ability to recreate within one's own consciousness the inner life of the other. It's an ability implying the utmost in attention and conscious effort, and can only be learned over a lifetime. Every time I attend to someone's words in a merely mechanical fashion, I degrade what is most fully human in both of us.

Could it be that the “necessity” I feel for superficial scanning tells me something important about what I have allowed my job to become? Isn't it really under my control? Why do I call down upon myself so much “half-important” material, if not to satisfy some sort of profitless information greed? These questions lead directly to one of today's hottest topics on the Net: information filtering.

Fading conversations

The information glut is not new. Long before the Net's burgeoning it was impossible to keep up with more than a tiny fraction of the journals, books, conferences, and discussions bearing on one's professional field, let alone those relating to avocational interests. No one with any sense tried to take in everything, for that could lead only to the intellectual shallows. Far more important was deep interaction with those colleagues one did encounter in person or in writing.

Now, however, there is almost a frenzy of concern for “filtering.” Software tools for selecting, categorizing, filing, and analyzing information -- and even for responding automatically to personal messages -- are under intense development. A primary reason for this, quite evidently, is that computers give us our first automatic scanning and processing abilities. Somehow it seems that we can “get at” much more information than we could in the old-fashioned library.

This is no doubt true in some sense. But two cautions seem necessary. First, no more today than yesterday does breadth of acquaintance substitute for depth of contemplation -- even if the available tools make the temptation to spread wide almost irresistible. And second, we need to realize the subtle nudges these new information-processing tools administer to us. Just consider: in conversation with a friend or colleague you would most definitely not apply a rigidly pre-set filter to his remarks -- not, at least, if you were interested in learning from him rather than imposing your biases upon him.

Tools for filtering make it clear that human exchange is becoming less conversational. The human context of the word is ever less important, which is to say that what the words mean is defined within a relative vacuum. This necessarily leads to our taking them more abstractly, for concreteness derives from a particular human milieu. Without such a milieu, we can only talk about what the words might mean “in general.”

Half of every conversation consists of what meets me unpredictably from the other side. Half of learning is achieved by the world, working upon me at its own initiative. The aim of the filter is, at one level, to eliminate unpredictability -- to select my “input” according to criteria I can fully control. Of course, it's also true in direct conversation that I can choose my partners, but certain human constraints prevent my simply walking away as soon as a “wrong” turn is taken or one of my “filter this out” keywords is spoken. I have to deal with the person, whose presence alone grants him a certain claim upon me.

The frightening prospect is that cyberspace will fade into a mere disjunction of subjective universes as each of us encases himself within a solipsistic cocoon. The paradox here is that reduction of knowledge to “objective” information is precisely what prepares the way for this triumph of subjectivity. But, then, in all things a perverse subjectivity is the unavoidable correlate of a perverse objectivity.

Am I advising you to avoid all use of software filters? No. The only thing I would state in such absolute terms is the most general principle: we must do whatever we find necessary to preserve our fullest humanity in the presence of our machines. But it does seem to me that the comparison between online communication and conversation proves useful in focusing our thinking about the choices. Certainly it is true -- to retrieve our starting point -- that if we take the requirements for conversation seriously, then the demands placed upon us by the “orality” of computer-mediated communication are at least as stringent as the demands embodied in traditional standards of writing, even if they are somewhat different.


1. See Chapter 23, “Can We Transcend Computation?”

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