For Peters, dialogue and dissemination are both tools in a larger ‘toolkit of talking animals’ - one is not clearly preferred as they both have their relative uses and dangers in evolving communication contexts. Dialogue typically refers to an in-person, interactive exchange of information, whereas dissemination is a one-way form of communication where a message is shared to a dispersed audience.
Through Socrates, we find the first expression of dialogue elevated to a tool of primal, spiritual and social significance. Dialogue, with its ‘reciprocity and interaction’ (Peters, 33) provides interlocutors with the opportunity to observe the recipient and therefore adjust the message with the needs of the receiver. This allows for a dynamic presentation of information that can adapt to the particulars of the emotional landscape in which it is expressed.
Proponents of the dialectic often argue that dissemination is inherently problematic for its ‘impersonal’ and ‘promiscuous’ mode of distribution, and its failure to acknowledge the ‘individuality of its interiority’ (34). This anxiety continually finds its expression at the event of any transformation in the means of communication. From writing to telephony to radio and computers we find each new technology being held responsible for the degraded status of dialogue in our communities.
Dialogue is not always just. Peters argues that we must consider the interests that profit from ‘constituting audiences as observers rather than participants’ (34). To equate the technologies with their social applications would be to ignore the pre-existing conditions which create incentives to exploit these technologies for political or economic gain. For example, The fact that radio is used for broadcasting means rather than something more interactive is the outcome of a ‘complex social accomplishment’ (34). Even once we reach a point of dialogue, there is no guarantee that participants will be clearly heard or understood. Dialogue is vulnerable to its own flavour of manipulation and extortion as face-to-face engagement can favour aggressive or violent modes of communication. Furthermore, dialogue can also privilege those who have access to nourishing, educational spaces given that it is so tied to physical space.
Dissemination and its ‘receiver-oriented’ model of communication can be problematic but also just. While reciprocity is a ‘moral ideal, it is an insufficient one’ (61). Dissemination represents a model of communication something more like the unreciprocated love of family - giving is not valued only in relation to receiving. At its best, dissemination opens a larger and more accessible space for cross cultural and class communication. On the other hand this model provides a greater capability for advertisers, manipulators and propagandists to take hold of their audience. Ultimately, Peters concludes that it is a ‘friendlier model’ for the ‘weirdly diverse practices’ that our communities deal in (62).
The distortion of dialogue is one of the distinctive features of our capabilities as signifying animals. While Dialogue represents an ideal for some, it should not eclipse the possibilities of dissemination in our weird and fragmented communication culture.
Peters, John D. Speaking into The Air. The University of Chicago. Press, 1999.