A FIRST-RATE DEMONSTRATION of the World Wide Web—which shows instantaneous global access to information about any conceivable subject—presents a dizzying realm of connective possibility. For some, the Net embodies a way to physically wire together human consciousness into All-Embracing Mind, the culmination of human evolution elaborated by the French Jesuit and mystic Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man.
Yet actual experience quickly dashes the promise of reaching Teilhard’s Omega Point of converging consciousness. The wealth of information that lies out there seems poorly organized and largely inaccessible. Much of the conversation on the Net seems inane, confused, or just plain rude and hostile. The frequency of angry outbursts of flame wars suggests failure to communicate rather than an ideal communications medium.
To a technologist, the factor that measures the communication capacity of a medium is its bandwidth. All types of data, whether text, image, sound, or video, are sent as coded streams of 1’s and 0’s, each of which contains one bit of information. The bandwidth of an ordinary phone line (typically 14,400 bites per second) is sufficient to send one or two pages of text almost instantly, but nowhere near enough to make it convenient to send moving images, which contain far more information.
Clearly we have more than enough bandwidth to send endless reams of written correspondence. In this light, problems with human communication on the Net are due not so much to an absolute lack of bandwidth but to constraints on what I will call emotional bandwidth.
Specialists in human communications have taught us the importance of nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, gesture, and facial expression in framing content. Words alone don’t signal the intent and attitude of the speaker nearly as much as, for example, the arched eyebrows that signal “You’ve got to be kidding.”
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