I’m thinking today about the new world order in communication. As with so many subjects, today’s world is much more complicated than it was as I came of age. Back then it was relatively easy to categorize types of communication: direct conversation, having a phone call, giving a speech, writing a personal letter, writing a business letter, writing an essay, writing a memorandum, writing a book, etc. There were social norms attached to each of those types, so everyone knew how to approach them and what to expect from them. That ease is now gone.
Those types of communication that I knew then still exist, but they have been augmented by an explosion of new communications types: emails, instant messages, message boards, Facebook posts, tweets, instagrams, video chats and video calls just begin to scratch the surface. In my mind, it is even worse that these new communications forms have sprung into existence so quickly that we collectively have not yet established the social norms for their use. Instead, we are making things up as we go – with good and bad results.
Some examples of the good results: I love the idea that I can create smart agents to actively watch for news in subjects of interest to me. I love that I can maintain close friendships with people on the other side of the country, or the other side of the world. I love how easy it is to stay in touch with my family, even though it has scattered across the US. I’m especially loving that I will be able to continue to have regular conversations with my older daughter when she begins college in a few weeks.
Some examples of the bad results: I’m bothered by large advertisers tracking my interests to determine when I am most vulnerable to particular advertisements. The ability of everyone to instantly respond to almost anything has resulted in hot-tempered reactions that escalate issues rather than resolving them – when the speed of communication in the past often forced a period of time during which the responder could cool down and instead send a more measured reply (or no reply at all). Any recipient of an electronic message can forward it to unintended recipients; so everything sent by electronic means is potentially sent to the entire world.
I also worry about matching content with medium. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” He meant that a communication medium inherently changed the content of a message. This is even more important today, when so many more mediums exist, and when people can easily create systems that receive information in one medium and forward it via another medium with little or no conscious thought – and with the originator of the message not involved at all. When a politician gives a speech at a county fair, he or she speaks to the fifty or sixty people in attendance. But when a political operative records that speech, edits it, and posts snippets of it out of context on a web site, the message is not just changed – it is perverted. The new mediums don’t result in more communication, but rather chill open and honest debate in favor of packaged bland aphorisms.
I have spent most of my adult life working with different forms of technology, and my natural inclination is to believe that technology is improving society. But I do believe technology has damaged communication as much as it has benefited communication. The fault, I believe, is in the lack of social structure – the norms – of how these new technologies are to be used and how they should not be abused. Until we collectively create and adopt those missing norms, we will continue to miss out on much of the great promise technology brings to communication.