Talking Over The Internet

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”-Two dogs talking to each other, in a Peter Steiner cartoon

I owe almost everything good which happened to me since my late teens to the internet. I mean it. I got every job and freelancing assignment of mine over the internet. I cannot think of any relationship-virtual or real life- which would have flourished to the extent it had without the internet. The internet opened up a huge body of literature, which would have been otherwise inaccessible to me. In the absence of the web, would I have discovered libertarianism or have been able to study Economics in a way which is even remotely comparable to the way I do today? I seriously doubt. Would I have been able to interact with, and learn from some of the greatest minds of our generation with such ease? I think not. I started blogging around eight years back, when I was a boy. Would I have written as much as I have without knowing “that there is someone, somewhere, who wants it, too”? It never mattered that it could be just one. But, it mattered that the internet made it all the more possible.

Of course, people found jobs before the internet. Good ones. They bonded with each other, read books and learned from eminent thinkers. They penned great literature. But, the internet changed the process in a way no one could have imagined. The internet made all of it more easily within our reach.

Being a toddler in the cyberspace

It all began when as a teen, I read a book on how to use the internet. I quickly dropped into an internet Café and tried for half an hour to make sense of how it works. It didn’t work out well, and all I could see was a pornographic website set as the home page of the browser by some miscreant. I tried again months later, and happened to enter a Yahoo chat room. It was not an altogether fruitful experience.

Soon, I joined an engineering college where I was supposed to study Computer Science. Before long, online conversations became my biggest source of amusement. I clearly remember my initial experiences in chat rooms. The first meaningful conversation I had was with a ’16 year old girl’ based in the US. Later it turned out that it was a much older girl. I never felt so, as she had the mental development of a preteen.

Once in a while I met some fundamentally smart people. I remember a 13 year old girl who was smarter than anyone I have ever met. I doubt whether I will find many of them impressive today. Over the years, I made some good friends. Some of those relationships spilled in to real world.

Having meaningful conversations

How does one find a true relationship over the internet or anywhere else for that matter? GMU economist Bryan Caplan proposes a reasonably good detector of true love: “Appearing to enjoy a long series of conversations about most of the topics that interest you. Faking sexual attraction is pretty easy; faking interest in what someone says is really hard to do for very long. This is doubly true if it’s a genuine dialogue, where both parties stick their necks out and say something. Of course, if you’re going to use this approach, you have to be yourself. Talk about your actual interests. If you love comic books, find a potential spouse who claims to likes comic books too. If she maintains her end of an animated discussion after a hundred hours of talk, she either loves you or deserves an Oscar. Well, that’s a little premature. It’s a good idea to cycle through a variety of subjects.”

I remember people with whom I have talked about everything I loved, switching topics at ease. They listened to me the whole night, contributing in whichever little way they can-only to come back the next day after the sun has set. It never seemed to matter how abstract the discussion was, or that I talked incessantly about my own deep feelings, struggles and moments of happiness. At that point, I found nothing strange in it. When I stop to look back and wonder: Do they deserve an Oscar? What was in it for them other than that they simply loved talking to me? After all, we might never meet. I think they simply wanted to talk.

Debating libertarianism

I discovered libertarianism in 2004. Till 2007 I was the only libertarian I knew-even on the internet. I was not active on Facebook.  I never bothered to find out whether any of my college mates had ever heard of this obscure political philosophy.  It was a bit too frustrating to not know anyone who shares my intellectual preferences or political convictions.

In course of time, I came across some young libertarians with whom I passionately argued. Fighting anti-capitalists on internet forums was loads of fun at that point in time. The way I behaved fit in quite well with Daniel Mccarthy’s description of modal libertarians: “These were young men—and they’re always male—with a fanatical gleam in their eyes, eager to buttonhole and evangelize, full of all the self-confidence that comes with unblinking dogmatism. They thought they had the answer to every important question in the world, when what they really had was a hormonal imbalance. What they said was not too unlike from what I’d heard before, but their attitude made all the difference. Like many a traditionalist conservative before me, seeing the intemperance in those eyes and hearing it in the pitch of their voices convinced me that libertarianism had to be as bad as Communism. These were Jacobins who would smash anything that stood in the way of creating their utopia.”

After mid teens, whenever I heard someone uttering anything I disagreed with, I would get into a heated debate. I think I kind of grew out of it. What Bryan Caplan writes of his debating habits is quite true of me too: “Back in high school, and into my first years of college, I was in full-time combat mode. If I heard anyone say anything I disagreed with, I challenged him on the spot. Considering how appalling most people’s beliefs are, it was a full-time job. Over time, however, I’ve drastically changed my strategy. Now I only argue with people I respect, or for the benefit of an audience.”I never really debate these days, though I deeply long for an interesting exchange of ideas.

I have hundreds of libertarians in my Facebook list. I have rarely wasted my time on ones who are ‘career libertarians’, with virtually no interest in the subject. I have always despised social climbers who jump from one worthless international conference to another and are proud of it. But, I get along well with youngsters who really love economics and other social sciences. These are young men who love to read and learn, unlike the ones who simply love to talk about Economics and politics.

Debating Ethics

I feel that there is something intrinsic about debates which make people uncomfortable. The discomfort has little to do with explicit insults and more to do with the fact that “Virtually no one likes being proven wrong in a debate-or anywhere else for that matter.”

A personal experience might illustrate my point. Some time back, when I worked with a libertarian think tank, a colleague wanted me to write a public policy paper on ‘Mining rights for tribal’s’ with him. He was slightly sympathetic to socialism. After arguing for long, we failed to convince each other, but he insisted that we should write a paper together. He objected to every point of mine saying that it was too prescriptive. I never understood what is wrong in being prescriptive, or what a public policy think tank wishes to accomplish with a paper by not being prescriptive. As I was not comfortable co-operating in the face of such disagreement, I wrote a mail trying to get across my point. The next day when I reached the office, I found him deeply upset. His face looked as if he was terribly ill. After hours, he turned to me and said: “I have never tried to convince you. I do not want anyone to convince me either.” I was puzzled, and was completely unable to figure what he wanted from me. If he said that I was being abusive or insulting, I would have understood. There was nothing at all personal in the mail, though I argued quite passionately. It was written out of purely benevolent motives. What hurt him deeply was of course, the fact that deep down, he felt that he was wrong.

I am taking the luxury to draw widely from Bryan’s blog on debating ethics. He writes:

“I’d suggest three key norms:

1. Don’t think less of people who sincerely disagree.

2. Do think less of people who insincerely agree.

3. Do think less of people who think less of people who sincerely disagree.

I don’t claim that these norms are easy.  It’s tough for humans to follow them perfectly.  But they’re do-able – and given human nature, they’re self-reinforcing.”

And: “If you’re dealing with someone you respect, it’s a tragic mistake to let them know, in Jane’s words, that you “won’t stand for hearing it.” If you take offense, you make people afraid of offending you. And if you make people afraid of offending you, the quality of conversation plummets. So what should you do if people you respect start talking crazy? Resist the temptation to use anything harsher than friendly ridicule. You’ll still get your point across, and you won’t kill the goose that lays the most precious of all golden eggs: uninhibited conversation.”

I think these are norms which would help one a long way not just in debates, but also in interpersonal conflicts with people you value and respect.

  1. If you are not willing to listen when someone explains his side, it is time for you to ask yourself whether truth matters to you.
  2. If you are not willing to explain yourself convincingly, and still demand trust, it is time to think why you are not willing to stand purely on the merits of your case.

Perhaps, you are right. But, isn’t the slight discomfort you face totally worth it? You wouldn’t run into this if your friend doesn’t care for you or the truth. I think it is pretty hard to argue against this.

Spotting virtue

The people I love talking to on the internet (or anywhere else) are the ones who just want to be friends-ones who are not manipulative, and have not ever bothered to play power games. They have no secret agenda. They are easy to talk to-direct and open, and do not respect conventional codes of etiquette. They do not create an impenetrable wall in front of them.

Some of them might not be too vocal about what they think and feel, but at some point, I understood them too well. They were with me when no one else was-Caring for me day in and day out, not trying to reform or stop me when I did things which I thought to be right. Ones who turned a cold, distant eye when the going was tough were of course, the first ones to sneer for not ‘bending a bit here and there’, and not ‘looking ahead’. Irrespective of what happened between us later, I remember that, and always will. Of course, these are simple things. Little acts of kindness. But, it matters a lot. When I see petty people who make a show of every little thing they do, I can see how much it does.

Sometimes I might have been unfair, while they suffered my outbursts in silence not even knowing how to tell what they feel without sounding dependent and vulnerable. It is fine. We are unable to look into others minds, and are left with nothing to rely on, other than introspection.

When I talk to people on the internet, all that matters to me is their intelligence and character. If someone meets both, I do not care about their personal eccentricities or weaknesses. I do not care whether they have faltered here or there. I do not care whether they have occasionally caused me pain or discomfort. It doesn’t matter a bit whether they are arrogant or humble. All that matters to me is that it should stay that way.

Finding good in people

Bryan Caplan’s advice for people, applies on the internet too: “Be friendly.  It’s not just good advice for libertarians; it’s good advice for people.  A strong presumption in favor of kindness and respect almost never hurts you, and often helps you.  Note that I say “presumption.”  Don’t “wait and see” if people deserve friendly treatment.  Hand it out first, no questions asked.  You will make friends (very good), avoid making enemies (good), and occasionally show undeserved kindness and respect (only mildly bad). What we need isn’t more humility, but greater friendliness. Smile. Laugh at yourself. Look for and enjoy the good in people who don’t agree with you. Appreciate your good fortune to be alive during the best years humanity has ever had. Live by the wisdom of The Godfather: “I believe in friendship and I am willing to show my friendship first.”

Being the typical nerd, I know that I fall terribly short of these standards. I think the internet has made me a lot less inhibited. But perhaps, I will never be Mr. Warmth. That is fine, and I have never felt any need to be apologetic about it.

Most people are not deserving of our love, respect or trust. It is true of people we meet on the internet too. However, on the internet, we are not compelled to deal with people undeserving of our attention. The internet doesn’t come with the inbuilt socialization which characterizes the school, college or workplace. We are free to choose our own friends.

It is not too hard to see and enjoy virtue, competence and conscientiousness in people. It is all true of people we meet on the internet too. There were perfect strangers who tried to find a job for me, or directed me towards people who can be of help there. I remember asking a reputed economist his advice on doing graduate school, and he replied in detail, with options tailored to my ideology, interests and financial capabilities. Would I have done it that way if I were in his place? I doubt. A Facebook friend told me that he were rooting for me all the time in a cancer threat phase, when apart from occasional mails, I knew him only through his work which meant a lot to me. Even when I think of people with whom I have declared lifelong enmity, at some point, they were the only ones who took trouble enough to do things which no one else did. To me, it mattered a lot.

I believe in extending friendship to anyone capable of carrying forward a sane, intelligent conversation. But, I instantly block people whose creativity doesn’t extend beyond barking: “Sup dude?”. Even in my initial days on the internet, I used to cut off people who ask “ASL”, then and there. Why is it so hard to make one self a bit more interesting?

The insatiable predators

I often think of some people I have known on the web and in real. The moment I steer the conversation into a meaningful direction, they grow uncomfortable and change the subject. I end up wondering whether they even have a mind. Whatever it is that draws us close to each other, I wonder how we can go too far in this. They struggle to prove themselves when they need not. They try to manipulate when they cannot-as after a point, I have seen them for what they are. They sulk and whine. They are kind at one moment, withdrawing it at another. They play games when there is no way they can get away with it. I often think they should have more sense than to think that it is a game in which they might win. Sometimes we cannot hear a harsh word from them. But all their intelligence-which is not much-goes into inflicting pain in so insidious a manner. As a psychologist wrote, being manipulated is like getting a whiplash. One feels the damage much after it is done. But when you are constantly imagining things and expecting the unexpected, it is all writing material. I often go along to see how far this goes. It is a much enjoyable social experimentation-not much different from watching a roadside freak show. And as disturbing!

Some of them had ended up begging, crying like I never had seen anyone cry. Sometimes they cannot do even that, because it might not help, and because “how could they, when they are grown up, with families and organizations”. Then, they have to be quite subtle and soft in their approach. I ask myself: “Wasn’t all this entirely predictable? What on earth did they gain materially or spiritually-other than misery? Couldn’t they have had everything they had wanted if they were just nice-If they had practiced the old-fashioned code of common honesty and common decency?” Why do they need things which they could not have deserved? With all their crookedness, they are nothing but fools. They created hell on earth when they could have lived in heaven. They tried to make others their pawns, and now pawns they are in the hands of reality, and often of their own victims. They are the proverbial minks that walk blindly into a scented trap.

There are of course, many such people on the internet.

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