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Libyans in the Digital Age: Dialogue or Deliberation?

The social and political ramifications of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) has become a major topic of study and speculation. Much attention has been focused on electronic or "virtual" communities that knit together individuals who may be separated by huge geographic distances but who appear to share some common interests. For example, Negroponte has recently argued in his well-written book Being Digital that the digital revolution has removed many of the limitations of geography. " Digital living," he argues, "will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible"(Negroponte, N., 1995, p. 165). Other writers like Rheingold and Fukuyama, however, take up some of the problems with this idea. They say that the advantages of CMC are not in creating new communities but in strengthening already existing social networks. In other words, face-to-face meetings will always be indispensable for cementing digital relationships and sharing different worldviews.

No doubt the Internet has facilitated the creation of some kind of civic networking. A site like this one helps to build information systems that glue together the diverse Libyan elements, provides access to information about local, regional and global issues, stimulates public dialogue and fosters lateral conversations among and between different citizens. According to many experts, electronic communications and information tend to improve human communication and interaction in a community by bringing together its members and promoting debate, deliberation and resolution of shared issues. And by organizing information and striving to inform all members of the community including those with disabilities or limited mobility and resources enhancing civic participation. Be it as it may be, the real question is what are the advantages and disadvantages that the new medium offers the Libyan community on this very site?

I have been a regular reader and a reluctant participant for a while. This is my take on this unique experience. Our electronic site obviously differs in important ways from other conventional spaces. It is still text-based, which means that many of the traditional features of social interactions such as physical clues, voice intonation and eye-to-eye contact are missing. CMC therefore is quite blind to the traditional hierarchical orders of social systems. It also benefits people who may not typically have a voice in regular face-to-face situations because of different personal and cultural reasons.

Dialogue or Deliberation:

From my personal perception of these pages, I must say that the dialogue has been reactive than deliberative. Dr. Ighnaiwa gave people a way to respond instantly often angrily and very aggressively without taking the time to mull responses over. This is simply because the majority of the discussants is largely anonymous hiding behind pseudo names and feeling the freedom to vent it out! Another reason is the obvious ignorance and lack of understanding of basic terms of civilized debate. And when there is more interesting discourse, you can tell it is by people who just love to hear the sound of their own voices. They are not really listening to other opinions or contributions. In short, the talking was, and to a great degree still is, AT each other instead of WITH each other.

It should be noted that the lack of deliberation on the net is not a uniquely Libyan phenomenon. Many researchers have attributed this lack of deliberation to the absence of strong affiliations between disparate discussants beyond their participation in an on-line forum like ours. To be sure, we Libyans need a lot of venting. But is that the limit we are setting for ourselves in the digital age? I do certainly hope not. The difference between a mere conversation and deliberation is the difference between spontaneous, uniformed and unreflective discourse on the one hand and a deeper consideration of various alternatives in addressing a specific issue on the other.

One of the major difficulties with the metaphor of virtual community is that it implies that technology itself can create community. However, although information is essential to debate, dialogue is only meaningful when it is tied to purpose. Only an informed community can give this type of human exchange purpose. Perhaps we need to discuss our aims and goals beyond the superficial chatter. I am calling on all participants in this ongoing enterprise to strive to make this unique digital Libyan oasis a place for all decent and factual views and perspectives and to refrain from demagogy and name calling. After all, we really need to articulate our mutual interests by agenda setting and persuasion not by shouting. We need to nurture our affiliation and affection to each other; maintain autonomy; reformulate and re-conceptualize our predicaments; guard our democratic collective self-expression; and to continue exploring our Libyan and human mutualities. Only then we could COMMUNICATE and proudly name our exercise a project in REAL community building.

Further readings:

Francis Fukuyama (Dec. 1995), "Now Listen, Net Freaks, It's Not Who You Know, But Who You Trust," Forbes, Vol. 156, No. 13, P. S80.

Nicholas Negroponte (1995), Being Digital, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Howard Rheingold (1993), "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community," in Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Linda M. Harasim, Editor, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Abdelrahim Saleh

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