Thoreau was famously skeptical of communications technology, wryly observing that when the telegraph connected Maine and Texas, citizens of each state could find they have little to say to one another. Shannon Vallor, Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University, struck a similarly cautious note at a fascinating discussion of the ethics of social networking at Stanford. Mining the rich tradition of virtue theory in moral philosophy, Vallor observed that social networking can both undermine and reinforce the persistent dispositions of character that promote human flourishing. Here are some similar observations of Vallor’s from another panel:
[W]hat impact is social networking technology having on the ways that people build and sustain close interpersonal relationship and, in particular, the communicative virtues that help such relationships to flourish? I will identify five communicative virtues that I believe warrant careful reflection in connection with social networking technology.
First is patience. Patience is, without a doubt, one of the most important virtues for sustaining close relationships. It develops through communicative activities such as listening. For example, listening to a friend tell a story or recount a lengthy anecdote without jumping in and finishing the story oneself or interrupting with hey, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me yesterday. Patience, once it becomes not just a momentary indulgence of the other, but an enduring part of one’s own character, that is, a virtue, allows one’s relationships with others to manifest deeper, mutual understanding, greater and more lasting commitments and a feeling on the part of others that you are willing to connect with them on their terms and not just yours; that your interest in them does not end with their ability to keep you constantly amused or fascinated.
Yet the style of communication favored by digital natives and fostered by social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, privileges brevity and directness. And, thus, we must ask whether, and in what ways, such technologies can also encourage and reward patience as a virtue.