interview on technology and communication, 12-17-09The following are my responses to questions provided by a reporter from a high school newspaper in Lake Zurich, IL. I assume her article will appear in that paper. I don't want to beat her to the punch, but the well-written questions provoked a number of ideas which I wanted to save; when that happens, I save them here. Sorry! Good interview; I hope it's useful to someone, and particularly to young people in northern Illinois.
What is technology's overall impact on communication?
Technology has given us more media to use to communicate, and made instant communication worldwide possible, common and routine. This will have a stunning impact on world events, but we haven't seen the total effect of it yet; it's all too new.
It is not quite accurate to say that we are communicating more poorly because of things like texting which seem to be denigrating the quality of written English. We are communicating more, and we are getting used to new media which may make misunderstandings more common, until we develop sophistication with the systems. For example, it's easy for people to get angry at e-mails they read, but slowly people are learning to write more nuanced e-mails, and use emoticons effectively, so that that happens less or is less severe.
How does technology impact the importance of face-to-face communication?
In many ways people use technology to avoid face-to-face communication. They have proven to prefer texting to actually calling, and many times they will admit it's easier to leave a message, and just avoid the direct exchange. This doesn't make face-to-face communication less important, though, it just makes it less necessary. For example, in education, everyone is afraid of the arrival of online education. But online technology offers the ability to see people, miles away, at every minute, so we haven't lost all that much in terms of important personal contact. As we get more used to this though, we'll find that face-to-face communication is more enhanced, more important. Think of what happens when you meet people who have been your Facebook friends for a while, but who you haven't seen. Your relationship is better; you know each other better; and, seeing them face-to-face, you can tell that these relationships are different from the way they used to be.
How does technology change our verbal communication?
I think oral communication will become more like written is today; for example, we'll have a world-standard English, and the importance of dialects will change. This started with television, by the way; before that, each geographical place had its own unique sound. Now, television English rules, in the US anyway. And soon, this will be more global. There will only be a few languages, and each of them will have a standard form, and everyone will know the standard form of at least one of them.
Do you think technology has made communication more casual?
Technology has made the casual use of writing much more common. In my generation, writing was far more formal, more serious. What was written, was always true, and thought out. Now, there's chat, and texting, and Facebook, and all this informal and immediate writing. And this writing is far more casual.
Is emotion hard to convey through technology? If so, how?
E-mails are misinterpreted, as I've said. We have to become more adept at conveying subtle emotions in the new informal writing situations. Emoticons (like smiley face :-) or tongue out :P ) help us but are frequently misinterpreted. LOL has a million meanings and is also misinterpreted. Some of this misinterpretation is because people are new to chat and have to get used to a new language. So, in a way, it's like you just learned French, and someone asked you if emotion is hard to convey in it. Yes, because emotion is subtle, and even in speech, we go around and around, trying to be discreet & indirect.
Do you think it is hard to express our emotions in a healthy way through modern technology?
Oh, yes. People have to learn to think carefully before they fire off an e-mail response, or put a four-letter word into Facebook. They have to remember that just because it seems casual, it is of course permanent and easily recreated, especially by enemies and potential employers. People often associate chat rooms with the more vulgar or seedier aspects of life- sex with strangers, scammers, phishers, etc. and that's because those are the people who found them first. But chat, twitter and instant messaging are tools that have proven to be extremely useful to everyone, and healthy people will use them in healthy ways; in addition, everyone else will learn to be healthier, especially when they notice the permanence of what they say and do, which is really much more pronounced than it was, say, in the telephone era.
How do you think technology has made it more difficult to create/foster lasting relationships?
I think it has made it easier. I deal with international students who now can Skype their parents every day if they want; that means they can see them, and talk to them as they see them, whenever they want. Facebook has made it so that if you have a friend at the age of five, you can stay in their life forever. This allows us to make and keep friends free of the geographical restriction of having to be in the same area, stay in the same area, or visit regularly, which becomes harder and more expensive when you have children.
I think there are a lot of shallow things about the new technology; for example, I find it hard to express how I really feel on Facebook or Twitter, to 300 "followers." Technology in that way encourages a kind of ongoing, shallow connection, and everybody wants to tell you what they had for breakfast; spammers are all over our e-mail and will hit you every time you turn around. But this doesn't hurt my ability to have more meaningful relationships with the people I love; on the contrary, the technology makes those better, as long as I can use it well and carefully. My parents have found Skype and our whole family, which is spread from England to New Mexico, is much closer as a result. We see each other all the time. We don't value meeting each other any less, just because we can see each other on Skype; we're using Skype to plan a reunion, and it's better and easier. The last time I went abroad, phone calls were 8 or 9 dollars a minute. Now they're free, and we can see each other. I am in closer contact with classmates from high school, college, and graduate school, and am better friends with them as a result.
By the way you hear about these internet romances where people meet each other on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail boards, etc. and then, much later, meet face-to-face, get married, etc. I don't think these relationships have any worse chances than any others. My guess is that they have about the same 50/50 chance of success as any other marriage. They sure started and bloomed in a different way, though. You can't discount the differences in the way we communicate as being not important; they are important. They do change relationships. They have lasting impacts on culture and the way we do things. But it's not all bad; it's clearly both bad and good, and if it weren't at least partly useful, we wouldn't even bother with it.
I think that there is some concern in the schools that some kids are using texting or, worse, video games, at the expense of developing meaningful relationships. This concern is justified, and, if it is possible for these kids to avoid communicating entirely, they might. In my day this more often happened to avid readers, but it was a concern for even them. If you become awkward socially, it affects you all your life. I have encountered 100-words-per-minute chatters who are so free with the foul language that, when faced with a formal essay, they are more or less paralyzed by their realization that they are like a fish out of water. In this sense, the availability of other media has deprived them of the practice they need talking and writing. The same was said of television, by the way, and was true to some degree. We are influenced by what we see and what we come to consider normal, and if this excludes normal face-to-face communication and relationship building, that's a problem for everyone. But you can't blame it on the diversions, unless those diversions are allowed to totally replace normal social development.
By the way, there were more than a few people who thought the advent of the telephone would be the downfall of civilized society as we knew it. There was serious opposition all over the place to the idea of talking to people without seeing them. This was only 80 years ago or so, so I'm sure you could find people who could talk about it. Lots has changed in 80 years, including a divorce rate that went up to 50%. But is that the phone's fault? I don't think so. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens next!