I recently watched the episode of Buffy where they accidentally scan a demon into a computer and it takes over the Internet (Bear with me, I'm actually going somewhere with this) and while I was highly entertained by some of the now-archaic language and attitudes in the script, to say nothing of the inevitable demon smackdown, it did get me thinking about how those attitudes have evolved over the past decade--and how much uncertainty still surrounds the relationship between civil society, communication and the "interwebs."
In 1997, cyberspace was still unexplored and unfamiliar to a large segment of society. Thirteen years later, the number of people with no Internet access is shrinking every day. And while fears that virtual reality will eclipse and replace reality reality have diminished considerably, questions about the impact of modern technology remain.
R.S. Zaharna, a professor at American University and author of Battles to Bridges, suggests that public diplomacy has two frameworks, one focused on information dissemination and the other on relationship building. Modern information and communication technology are particularly suited to information dissemination, but their relationship-building capacity is less clear--an ambiguity that's actually addressed in the Buffy episode when two characters are debating the merits of technological evolution. The first, making the case in favor of development, argues that "more digitized information went across phone lines than conversation" in the past year, to which the other replies, "That is a fact I regard with genuine horror."
Proponents of PD 2.0 will argue that interactive technology makes it easier to build relationships online via sites like Twitter, Facebook and Second Life. Since starting this blog, I myself have made the acquaintance of several "cyberbuddies"--people I've never met, but have come to know through the Internet, a fact that both amuses and disturbs me. At the heart of that disturbance is my faith in the "last three feet," and a belief that meaningful human interaction must involve, well, human interaction.
I'm not exactly a card-carrying Luddite, but I do believe that face-to-face interaction is important for all relationships--even for public diplomacy. To that end, technology is just a tool. A very effective and ubiquitous tool, but a tool nonetheless, and one with some considerable limitations.