To be accused of something that you have not done, indeed would never do, is unsettling.   That my accuser is someone I have never met and who does not even know me seems to make the experience all the more chilling. Indeed, I have been left quite literally feeling cold. My temperature lowered, my temperament questioned, my reputation casually trashed and all by a simple email sent to everyone.

In recent years, we have lived through troubling times and just what we can and what we cannot say on the Internet, in a tweet or in an email has been brought front and centre. Although Lord Justice Leveson devoted only one of his 2,000 pages of report to the Internet he did correct the often-held notion that it was a place akin to the “Wild West”—that is, a glamorous place peopled by pioneers, where vigour is celebrated and questions take second place to action. Rather, he described it as an “ethical vacuum”. I would perhaps add that it is, in my experience, particularly my recent experience, a place simply devoid of civility, where those who can type, manage to forget the good manners their mothers taught them.

The details of my particular case are unimportant, but they do prompt me to muse upon the nature of community when we think of the Internet. As humans, we have evolved not just physically, but also socially. We inhabit a socially constructed world sharing our values and holding much in common that constitutes the reality in which we find ourselves. We are wired to live in community and to thrive there, but what if that community is virtual and devoid of eye contact and touch?

This is an important question because, whether we like it or not, we all inhabit virtual communities the moment we log on. Our lives, lived through social media, are one thing, while the communities of purpose in which we work as part of our professional lives are another. The former we choose; the latter we often have foisted upon us.

Technology offers us unprecedented opportunities for connection. Distance is no object and geographical spread unimportant. Time zones hardly matter and we do not even need to be plugged in. We sit at our desks, or on the train or even in the park and by logging on through some wireless magic we are suddenly in a meeting, joining a seminar or gate crashing a conversation. Sometimes, too suddenly, perhaps, to realise that we are no longer in the park.

I can, for example, seek the opinions of everyone I work with at the touch of a button. Whether I receive those opinions is, however, dependent on a number of factors not least of all the degree of engagement my colleagues have with this virtual world. That level of engagement varies in accordance with the level of contribution we are willing to make to our work in general, and with our degree of buy-in to the notion that there is any worth in a virtual working environment at all. Are the communities we create with the help of the Internet artificial? Undoubtedly so, but only in the sense that we were never meant to function without face-to-face contact. I, like you, am the product of a hundred thousand generations of evolution that have honed my people skills. I can read your face and your hands, study your pupils and even scent your feelings. But, of course, I can only do all this if we are in the same room (or perhaps, more appropriately, the same cave). Connected by an email discussion group or Internet forum, I have to develop a whole new suite of skills and, it seems, I have to relearn my manners.

Our ability to offend is not new. It started with the written word, and telegraphs and telephones took it to a new level. The instantaneous nature of our current communication, through email, facebook and twitter, although still at a distance, has brought it into sharper focus.

People would, I suspect, never say many of the things to our faces that they are happy to write and post at the press of a button. I would wager that the casual slurs that appear in emails sent to hundreds of work colleagues would be seriously tempered if they had to be delivered face-to-face, either out of a more obvious need for civility or perhaps just simple fear.   Good manners rein us in, not least of all, for our self-preservation. Perhaps, at a very basic level that’s why we have manners; to avoid being hit.

I don’t want to hit anyone, but I also don’t want to be a victim of consequences that the ill-mannered are unable to foresee while typing their unedited thoughts for all to read. Of course, there is nothing to be gained by responding, for a dialogue would only feed the fire and lead to deeper burns. No, all I can do is lose some sleep and blog about it before moving on. No, please, after you.

© Allan Gaw 2017


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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