Cartesian Dualism and the Problem of Social Networks

I was reading this morning’s Washington Post about the difficulty Organizing for America, “the 13 million-strong grass-roots network built during (the Obama) presidential campaign” was having in having a legislative impact. It brought to mind the similar network of that didn’t come through for 2004 Democratic Presidential Primary contender Howard Dean and it also brought to mind Rene Descartes and the problem of mind/body dualism.

How do the non-physical communication strategies of the Internet and even on-the-ground networking into physical reality? Are we really in a world with the only thing that has any impact are sticks and stones, because words can never hurt me?

Words don’t compel action. Shouting on it’s own doesn’t make someone do something. However, communication can affect the context in which actions are taken, making certain actions more likely, and making it easier to mobilize people towards specific action.

Many of talked of the CNN effect as if it what is reported on 24-hour news channels (and now on the Internet) directly causes action to be taken, but the effect is more subtle. Instead, the media and other environmental factors help set the agenda, giving certain subjects higher priority with regards to the need to take action. Theories such as Dr. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s “Spiral of Silence” again focus on how words can shape the environment in which actions are taken. If one set of opinions dominates the media (e.g. if one side shouts the loudest), a perception builds that it is the majority opinion — even if it is not. And those holding the less vocalized opinion head down a spiral if increasing silence, strengthening the louder side even more.

We saw some of these factors taken into account in the 1970s, when “the silent majority” was championed over the “vocal minority”

Now with so many communication channels, everyone can have a voice, but the question remains whether we know how to use our new found voices effectively to impact reality.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Allen Sheaprd


If you want to be herd, wisper. However with so many channels – is anyone left to listen?

Actually I hope the few will always float to the top and be heard. This makes ideas a popularity contest. Sometimes the real news is bad news. Life is more than the CNN news agenda or the latest item on Yahoo! news.

BTW – for another disturbing look at news check out google trends to see what people are searching for. Yes Britney Spears is on the list. Things like preparation, H5N1 etc barly make the list.


Andre Goodfriend

The psychology of being heard better when you whisper is interesting and an apt model.

In religion, some will talk of listening to the “still, small voice” referencing I Kings 19: 11-12

“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

Something important is happening, but it isn’t necessarily in all the sound and fury. Those who shout to be heard are relying upon the strength of their own voice to overcome interference and be heard. This may help set an agenda, but any meaningful message often gets lost amidst the din.

Those who whisper are relying on the audience wanting to listen.

An audience that wants to listen is one that is actively seeking information rather than having it thrust upon them.

In the classroom students who listen to the teacher who speaks softly have determined that it’s important to hear what the teacher is saying. (If they don’t think that what their teacher says is relevant, whispering won’t help).

Elsewhere I’ve focussed on developing the front end of a website as a decision support system, geared to those who want to find the meaning amidst the din and make a decision.

Right now there still more focus on “getting the message out” rather than “taking the message in.”

Allen Sheaprd


I totaly agree with you “An audience that wants to listen is one that is actively seeking information ” Sadlyl google trends shows me what people are looking for – bathing suits, diets, britney spears, etc.

I know it is wrong of me to assert my “top ten search items” on anyone else. I hope I’m misinterpreting the data. That if eeryone searches for two things then the items of interest that overlap will be most popular.

Thank you for the quote I Kings 19: 11-12. It is not always the actions, reactions or “head line news.” The message is often in the small voice. The hadwriting on the wall.

Andre, to find the meaning amoungst the din – that is a good and worthy goal.

How to get the message out. Hmmm. Be honest. They will either listen or not. The success or failure will be by their hand. They would have earned joy or pain. I may sound cruel but “you can lead a horse to water, but you can not make him drink” I believe you can lead people to learning but you can not make them think.

Andre Goodfriend


Thanks for your comments. The challenge though isn’t trying to get people to listen; it’s trying to find ways that we ourselves can hear and understand better. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as the ones trying to get the horses to drink. We ourselves are the horses. What would make it easier for us to know the right decision to make?

People use the Internet and other networks to help find information about many things. And, as was noted in the University of Melbourne study “The attraction of WILB, according to Dr Coker, can be attributed to people’s imperfect concentration. “People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration. Think back to when you were in class listening to a lecture – after about 20 minutes your concentration probably went right down, yet after a break your concentration was restored.

“It’s the same in the work place. Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days work, and as a result, increased productivity.”

The thing that seems to pay the bills for many technologies is their ability to facilitate leisure pursuits: playing games, shopping, sharing photos, and looking up articles about pop stars are what has helped spread the internet and make it possible for us to use these same leisure-focused tools for other types of ‘worthy and substantive’ social networking.

In some ways, being able to play with the same tools that facilitate work, also helps us understand how to get these tools to work better for us. Knowing the potential of internet tools to help us compare prices, to play with others in multi-player games, to get a sense of what other people think is important by seeing what information is being sought by others, also helps us better define, if we chose to, how we could use the internet to better inform our work related decisions, or the decisions we would like to make as engaged citizens.

But first we should stop seeing ourselves as the frustrated cow hands leading stubborn horses to the stream, and begin seeing ourselves as the horses trying to make the decision about whether we really want to drink that murky water — it could be tainted Kool-aid.