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Technological communication through the lens of virtue ethics

Lately, I have been thinking about the implications of continued and increased communication through technology.  I have also been exploring the topic of virtue ethics.  Here are some thoughts (including a couple of citations!) I have about connecting the two. 


A student has 500 friends on Facebook, and she swears she knows all of them.  A professor electronically networks with other academics she has never met thanks to an organization membership.  Furthermore, the student can recount those few seconds she talked to Tom from Vancouver while waiting in line at the Starbucks on her trip to Boston last September, and thanks to Facebook, she knows his birthday and his favorite movies.  The professor has memorized the bio of another professor from the University of Sydney with whom she has been exchanging ideas.  In both instances, the student and the professor rely on a minor amount of unverified information to maintain what they deem an authentic connection. 

For a connection to be authentic, it has to “use language to communicate in situations where the meanings are unpredictable” (Littlewood, 2003, p. 322).  Since neither the student, nor the professor can predict what will come next in their respective dialogues or what their counterpart exactly meant while conversing on networking sites, their communication may indeed feel authentic.  However, through the lens of virtue ethics, we can re-conceptualize Littlewood’s definition of authentic connection, such that we hold ourselves more responsible for our communicative habits and the meanings they create, rather than accepting that anything can happen and hoping that meaning will be created. 

Furthermore, analyzing technological communication through the lens of virtue ethics begs us to consider the longstanding implications of our networking relationships; virtue ethicists would argue that face-to-face conversation has “evolved in [a direction] that [fosters] certain virtues essential to building and sustaining close interpersonal ties” (Vallor, 2009, p. 159).  Therefore, it is unclear how technological communication will impact social ties and their authenticity as it continues to develop and force itself as the main vehicle for communication.  Communication is essential for understanding how people feel and what they believe.  It also tells us “what kinds of actions [people] will get in the habit of doing, and whether those actions will eventually promote in such person the development of virtues or vices” (Vallor, 2009, p. 158).  Often, it is best to read a person when she is right in front you, and technology, of course, takes this away. 

Since technology is now an integral vehicle in communicating people’s thoughts and habits, it is crucial that we consider how it impacts moral development.  More importantly, educators need to consider the extent to which they should include technology in their curriculums and classrooms.  Educators have the great responsibility of altering students' views of technology, as what happens in classrooms transfers to adult and public life.

The following are a few important questions to ask: Can we authentically understand each other through email, instant messaging, even Skype?  If so, will such connections alter how we understand each other?  Will tension still fill a room?  Will an emoticon hug suffice after a sour conversation?  Should I receive feedback on this, will our threads on HASTAC mimic authentic dialogue?  How much does what we say online really act as evidence for what we believe?

I am sure that I have merely scratched the surface of tying together authentic communication and virtue ethics.  However, I am confident that virtue ethics will be valuable in deciding to what length technology should influence future communication. 


Articles cited: Social networking technology and the virtues by Shannon Vallor and The task-based approach: Some questions and suggestions by William Littlewood



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