As for the values that are easily lost sight of amid the transactional efficiencies of the Net, let me mention just one: the value of leaving your neighbor in relative peace. The spammer could not so easily ply his trade among the neighbors on his block not, at least, without unpleasant consequences and many jarring impacts upon whatever conscience he has. But within the sphere of frictionless capitalism, where neighbors are replaced by transactions, and marginal costs are near zero, it's a different matter altogether.
What the psychologist Adolf G ggenbuhl-Craig has written of marriage is true in a degree of all human relationships. Marriage, he says, is
a special path for discovering the soul. . . . One of the essential features of this soteriological pathway is the absence of avenues for escape. Just as the saintly hermits cannot evade themselves, so the married persons cannot avoid their partners. In this partially uplifting, partially tormenting evasionlessness lies the specific character of this path. (1971, p. 41)
More generally, it is in the nature of all of us that we can't avoid or ignore each other. It's impossible. This truth is subtly expressed in all circumstances, but becomes obvious when you pass someone in an otherwise lonely place: you can't not respond; ignoring is itself a vivid, if negative, response. There's no escape from having to do with each other, which is our torment and also our salvation.
Nevertheless, the transactional efficiency of the Net can be seen as giving us practice in ignoring. We learn to conduct ourselves as if no one were there on the other end of the transaction no one we needed to reckon with. And, in fact, more and more it's a machine on the other end, or might as well be. In numerous formerly human contexts we have no choice but to adapt our responses to the machines we are dealing with; it would be silly if we did otherwise.
Digital networks continue and dramatically accentuate a longstanding trend toward depersonalized transactions in modern society. The trend is inescapable in an ever more complexly organized world. But this is not to say we've managed it healthily. Everything depends on our ability to find occasions for more deeply personalized transactions to counter the ever more pervasive mechanized ones, thereby keeping a grip upon our humanity. I can imagine three tracks upon which this effort might run:
I have already pointed out (see Chapter 15) that all the machinery of modern life, from printing press and book to a robot such as Kismet, presents us with human expression. To learn to recognize this expression in all its various qualities and through all the intervening layers of mechanism is a superb training for us. Even if what we must recognize is the disturbing effort to recast the human being as a machine, this attempted reduction is itself a profoundly significant human gesture. To apprehend it in all its nuances as an expression of hope, confusion, and pain is to deepen ourselves and begin to escape the threat we have recognized.
We can respond to all this mechanically impounded human expression by seeking to elevate it. This may at times require us to throw a wrench into the machinery in order to serve the worthy human intentions behind it. Learning when to violate a process, when to step outside it or somehow transform it in order to serve a higher value demands what is highest and most creative in us. The machinery around us, with all its limitations, is in this sense a tutor urging our upward reach.
We can seize every opportunity to deepen our engagement with persons wherever such engagement is still an option. This does not necessarily mean investing huge energies in making our online encounters as intense and fully dimensioned as possible (although such an exercise will always bear fruit). It may make at least as much sense to minimize online engagements in the interest of those all too intense (and all too easily neglected) relationships in our immediate physical environment. In any case, the point is to achieve a meeting of persons, as opposed to a kind of semi-automated engagement with mere words.
Strategies such as these, I believe, offer the most straightforward answer one can give to the question, "How can we make the Net a healthy part of society?"