No Internet without Augustine

“The job of an historian is not to make the past familiar but to make the present strange”  said Ciarán Mc Mahon as an introduction to his lecture at #ECIC18.

The lecture will be made available online [I will insert the link when this is done], there is no need for me to rephrase the presentation.

One idea, however, made me think. It is often said that the Internet is computer mediated communication, but Ciarán Mc Mahon disagrees. The Internet is an environment. Web designers try to bridge the gap between the users and let them experience direct presence. The Internet is – in the users’ experience – a new environment with new manners of behavior, it is direct, not mediated communication.

When we are online we are in a different conceptual space. There is no “tone”, no emotional message in text-based communication. Online relationships are quite different than face-to-face communication. (It would be interesting to know what Ciarán Mc Mahon regarding the increasing usage of videos, audios and photos in online communication.)

To understand the 21st century, it may sometimes be helpful to look at the past. Up to the 2nd and 3rd century AD, reading was very much a social event. For example, Plato’s philosophical writings were written on a scroll. These scrolls were read in public and discussed by the audience. Platonists and patristic fathers have conceptualized where the souls. Augustine converted the platonic  notion into an inner man or an inner consciousness. Interestingly, at the same time, in the 4th century AD, private reading become more common, codices were used instead of scrolls. Of course, reading a codex by yourself is more practical than reading from a scroll. Silent reading was critical to Augustine’s conversion when he heard the inner voice: tolle, lege, take the book and read. Thus Augustine was able to focus on one’s internal life.

We still rely on Augustine’s notion of conceptual space when we use the Internet. Imagine if we were to read out emails and text messages aloud in public. For online communication we use the concept that communication happens within one’s internal life. Therefore, Internet communication happens in a different environment than face-to-face communication when we share the same physical space with the person or persons we are communicating with.

Reading or online communication is no less real than face to face communication but it uses a different conceptual environment.

Augustine gave us a framework how to conceptualize and how we experience the Internet. Sometimes a look at the past lets us see the presence in a new way.

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