posted Jun 12, 2003
in Communication Ethics

This entry is part of the BlogBook called "The Ethics of Modern Communication".

Communication Ethics book part for A Communication Model. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

On the one hand, you'd think we all understand what communication is well enough to talk about it meaningfully, since we all do it from a very young age. On the other hand, personal experience shows that people get very easily confused about the communication that occurs in the real world. Most people can't really answer "What happens when you request a web page from a web server?" If you can't even meaningfully answer questions about how things work or what happens, how can you expect to understand the ethics of such actions? And a complementary question, if one must have a post-grad degree in computer science to understand what is going on, how can we expect to hold anybody to whatever ethics may putatively exist?

Since nobody can adequately describe what's going on, the debates almost inevitably degenerate into a flurry of metaphors trying to convince you that whatever they are arguing about is the same as one of the existing domains, and should be treated the same way. The metaphors are all inadequate, though, because as shown earlier, there is a wide variety of activities that do not fit into the old models at all. As a result, the metaphor-based debates also tend to turn into arguments about whether something is more like television or more like a newspaper. There are sufficient differences between things like using a search engine and reading a newspaper to render any metaphor moot, so the answer to the question of which metaphor is appropriate is almost always "Neither."

Before we can meaningfully discuss ethics, we need to establish what we mean by communication, and create a model we can use to understand and discuss various situations with. We'll find that simply the act of clarifying the issues will immediately produce some useful results, before we even try to apply the model to anything, as so frequently happens when fuzzy conceptions are replaced by clear ones. After we're done, we will not have need to resort to metaphors to think and talk about communication ethics; we will deal with the ethical issues directly. As a final bonus, the resultant model is simple enough that anybody can use it without a PhD in computer network topology.

 

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