Over the past forty years we have developed the notion that our technological advances, particularly in wireless and computers, has brought us together. After all, we have so many new ways to communicate instantly and we have so many ways to create text and graphical ideas that give imagery and verbosity to our thoughts.
But it is, in fact untrue that we are closer or that we communicate better. The opposite is the case. Though intended to provide channels of communication, most electronic wonders have simply resulted in new mechanisms for us to be insulated from real communication. It is about what we do with our technology that reveals who we really are when it comes to communicating.
verb: communicate; 3rd person present: communicates; past tense: communicated; past participle: communicated; gerund or present participle: communicating
share or exchange information, news, or ideas.
Share or exchange. Hmm. Is a thing shared unless it is received and used? No, it isn’t – is only offered. Communicating requires more than just putting a thought, phrase or idea out there. It has to be received and used for there to be communication. Exchanging of news or ideas also requires reception and consumption for there to be exchange. If two people are sitting in the same room talking, that does not mean communication is happening. Only when each is receiving, thinking on and analyzing what the other is saying and then responding as a result, is communication occurring.
Here are examples of technological inventions that were intended to improve communication, particularly at distances:
- 1962 the business facsimile machine is first used to transmit business documents from one business office to another.
- 1981 Voice Mail (originally called phone mail) was introduced, again in business first.
- 1984 Numeric then alphanumeric paging is made available on a commercial basis.
- 1985 Cellular telephone goes commercial in large cities.
- 1989 Text messaging is added to cellular telephone service
- 1992 Email is introduced as a commercial service using telephone modems (not the internet yet)
- 1994 Email service is applied to the internet
- 1996 Personal “rooms” are introduced on the Internet (MySpace, Book, Facebook, and so on).
Throughout this list (and you can probably add some techno ideas to it) nearly all of them have something in common. Except for cellular telephone, they are one-way technologies. A person at one end sends information to either a single device at the other end, or into an undefined Ether with no one specified as the target for the information. In reality, all of these sorts of technologies are either a different sort of telephone, or US mail. All of them fall short of face-to-face conversation. All of them except cellular phone are only successful when and if a person receives, processes and then acts upon the information sent. And in every case it requires more not less effort and circumstance for actual communication to occur. Note, even with cellular telephone (at least partly due to voice mail being included) the called person has a decision to make. “Shall I answer this call or let it go to voice mail and deal with it later or not at all”?
In every case technology has made something possible that was not possible before, but it has also created circumstances where communication has a very real likelihood not to happen at all. So many times throughout the day faxes are set aside, voice mail is not acted upon, text messages are misunderstood or simply read and left, cellular calls are left to voice mail, emails are ignored or not responded to and millions of people put personal information out on the “Sidewalk” to be kicked to the curb. We have learned how to avoid, prevent and feign communication.
Technology has allowed us to deceive ourselves into believing we have done our part in communicating, when we have simply sent our thoughts to the Ether.
Let’s be truthful about technology. It is there to help us to do what we should actually do. For us to communicate, we each must take responsibility for how we do it so there is the best chance for it actually to happen. Nothing replaces real face-to-face conversation. Telephone conversation substitutes for in-person talk, but with limitations; such as not seeing facial expression and body language, and the fact that one has chosen not to be present. Fax, text, email all are very poor replacements for full duplex voice – not replacements at all when you consider all the attributes for communication that are lost when using them. We all know intrinsically how far below real communication these forms are. The recipient can be excused from treating email with anything more than limited importance since that form of communiqué was chosen by the sender.
Conversation is the fundamental form of human communication. The textual, graphical forms of information transmission have use and value in documenting and memorializing what has been said, discussed, agreed upon or singly requested. They do not have a use as a replacement for conversation.
Do we communicate well these days? I believe that we do not do a very good job, based on how divided we are and how often we misunderstand each other. Perhaps our mistaken belief in technology has become part of the problem. We need to stop believing we have done our part when we just putting something out there and understand that we bear responsibility for doing all we can to promote real conversation.