Listening as a tool for democracy in the age of Social Computing

Krystyna Górniak-Kocikowska


The evolution of computer technology is amazing and breathtaking. Barely thirty years ago, computers were perceived mainly as ‘number crunchers;’ scholarly papers (Moor, 1985) were written to argue that these devices have a much broader potential. The development was so rapid that there was a problem with finding an adequate name for the new technology – from computer or digital technology to information technology to information and communication technology (Górniak-Kocikowska, 2005). These changing names reflected the direction in which the computer-based technology was evolving. The term social computing, used as one of the focal terms for the ETHICOMP 2011 conference, points out an additional step in this evolution. It indicates that presently the various applications of computer technology take the central stage in characterizing the technology itself; social computing being merely the most noticeable among them.

The recent popularity of social computing also brings a wide range of new problems, theoretical and practical alike. The social impact of social computing is possibly the most important among them. This paper will focus on one of the problems in the social impact area, namely, the problem of verbal communication, which is the core of social computing. Within the scope of verbal communication, the focus will be chiefly on the problem of listening.

In every meaningful and purposeful form of communication there are two main ‘players’ whether individual or collective: the sender and the recipient. (Often, they switch roles from sender(s) to recipient(s) and vice versa.) In verbal communication, the sender is usually known as a ‘speaker,’ whereas the recipient as a ‘listener’ even when the communication has a written, not an oral form. Usually, the speaker is seen as an active participant in the communication process, whereas the listener as a passive one. This distinction applies mostly to the external (visible and audible) characteristics of the communication process. In terms of internal characteristics, esp. regarding thought processes, the ‘listener’ can be as active as the speaker or even more so. This, however, rarely has a discernible impact on the process of communication at the time when this process is taking place.

Despite the existence of two processes (‘speaking’ and ‘listening’) and two participants (‘speaker’ and ‘listener’) in the phenomenon of verbal communication the interest of western scholars in ‘speaking’ far exceeds their interest in ‘listening.’ Corradi Fiumara maintains that this neglect of listening is the result of the dominance of logos and logical thinking in the western philosophical tradition. She further claims that logical thinking is “primary anchored to saying-without-listening.” (Corradi Fiumara, 1990, 3)

In the speaking-centered, not listening-centered western intellectual tradition, the primary purpose of communication is frequently the speaker’s victory and domination rather than mutual understanding and/or existential insight. In the logos-centered paradigm, the ‘speaker’s’ objective is usually to ‘prove,’ to ‘convince,’ to ‘make one understand,’ to ‘make one follow the speaker’ (the ‘speaker’s’ words, and sometimes also deeds). The ‘listener’ is supposed to pay attention, to remember, to follow the ‘speaker,’ and so on. Phrases like ‘listen to me’ more often than not mean ‘obey me.’ Besides establishing the position of the ‘listener’ as a subordinate one, such phrases indicate also that the role ascribed to the ‘listener’ in the communication process is a passive one. Consequently, fulfilling someone’s orders swiftly and accurately or acting by taking into account facts one has been informed about is often seen as proof of effective listening. But this is just one kind of listening, and it is not the most important one in the context of the social impact of social computing. Therefore, one of the issues raised in this paper will be the problem of ‘the will to listen’ (without which any meaningful communication is all but impossible). ‘The will to listen’ means that one has to have ‘the will to think’ first; ‘the will to obey’ or the ‘the will to follow one’s footsteps’ can ensue – or not.

One of the most prominent philosophers interested in the problem of listening, especially in the context of democracy and education, was John Dewey. Leonard J. Waks (2009) claims that the core of Dewey’s theory on listening is the distinction between “one-way or straight-line listening” (dominant in both traditional schools and undemocratic societies) and “transactional listening-in-conversation,” which “lies at the heart of democracy.”

Today, various academic disciplines, especially psychology, education, medicine, and marketing, pay significant amount of attention to the issue of listening. They all developed their own theories regarding this problem and approach it from their own particular perspectives. Even so, and even with the existence of professional organizations, e.g., The International Listening Association, and a multitude of on- and off-line publications, including specialized scholarly journals, there seems to still be an insufficient investigation of the problem of listening as an act of communication; in particular in the context of social computing which is now a global phenomenon. Global social computing can contribute to profound changes in the way the humankind deals with its own problems and with the problems of their environment. Therefore, advancing the understanding of listening and modifying our current approach to it should be one of our most urgent tasks.


Corradi Fiumara, Gemma (1990), The Other Side of Language: A philosophy of listening, transl. by Charles Lambert, Routledge.

Górniak-Kocikowska, Krystyna (2005), “Problem z nazwaniem nowego globalnego spoleczenstwa” [Problems with the naming of the new global society], Osoba w Spoleczenstwie Informacyjnym, ETHOS, John Paul II Institute Catholic University of Lublin, John Paul II Foundation Rome, Vol. 69-70, 77-99.

International Listening Association (last accessed on January 29, 2011),

Moor, James H. (1985). “What is computer ethics?” Metaphilosophy,16 (4), pp 226-275.

Waks, Leonard J. (2009), Hearing is a participation: John Dewey on listening, friendship and participation in democratic society, Manuscript.