Google Vice President Vint Cerf is called the "Father of the Internet" for helping to design the Internet's early architecture. He got hooked on technology as a high school student in the 1950s when he saw a tube-based computer weighing 275 tons.
Once, I was being driven by limo to a hotel in Palm Springs to give a speech. The driver appeared to be in his 60s, and I remember thinking, "How sad that he has to keep working at this menial job." It turned out, though, that he was the retired CFO of a major Chicago-based corporation who had gotten bored with golf. He took a part-time job driving the hotel's limo, so he could meet people and stay in touch with the world. He even ended up giving some good advice to me, a financially naive engineer.
I believe that every person deserves respect, and that I can learn something new from everyone.
Now, I make a point of asking people about their stories. From taxi cab drivers to cleaning crews, each person gives me a chance to vicariously visit a place or do a thing that I might never experience on my own. I've found most people are patient with me if I show an interest and respect for what they have to say.
Respect doesn't mean we have to agree, but we should disagree in a civil fashion. My work is in high-speed electronic communication, where miscues are common and can lead to serious disputes rooted in misunderstanding and distrust.
Even though it's impossible to assure civility in all situations, I can't recall a time when I have been proud of an online conversation that ended in an email nasty-gram. After the heat of the exchange wears off, I feel awkward, embarrassed that I allowed myself to be offensive.
Some people think the Internet isolates and dehumanizes us. I don't agree. The Net is simply a vehicle for people to communicate. When an online discussion becomes testy, many of us have learned to move the discussion to face-to-face or at least the telephone so that better social cues can moderate an increasingly angry exchange. Reading words often invites the worst possible interpretation. Understanding this is key to the world of the Web.
Whether it's on the web or in person, when I meet new people, if I am open, curious and civil, I can learn new things. I believe it's imperative — even selfish, you might say — to treat every person with respect.
Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein and Viki Merrick.