There was one particularly interesting topic at the dinner party which I’ll record here so that I hopefully pick up on it later. We were discussing the role of technology-mediated communication such as cell phones and email in our lives. One woman was trying to make the case that we should give up on it, that it was only making our lives shallower and more wasteful, that it wasn’t “real” communication. She made the good point that we would never conduct an interview over email, because there’s so many cues that you pick up when you’re talking to somebody in person. Given how much of my social life I conduct via technology, though, I had to disagree that it was a complete waste of time.
My contention, which I need to develop further at some point, is that we’ve had centuries to develop our ability to read physical cues. And we can still easily get fooled, because people like con artists take advantage of our trust. I think that we are starting to develop the understanding of cues necessary to make similar distinctions in the virtual world. In the real world, we’re well trained to thin-slice and ignore most of the information coming in. I think a few of us in my generation have, and many more in the next generation will have, the ability to effectively parse information online at a preconscious level and ignore big swathes of it to find what we’re looking for. I used the example of me versus my mother as far as chain letters and other net dreck – my mom will sometimes forward me stuff that I immediately dismiss as outdated or a scam or something, just because I’ve been on the net longer and have more experience with understanding what a legitimate email looks like. Or my ability to effectively use google and other online tools to find things in a few seconds that other people can not find in an hour.
We’ll also develop better tools for managing our virtual attention – right now, you pretty much have to look at everything in your inbox, but as spam filters get better, we’ll find ways to reduce the cognitive load of dealing with computer communications. I think. It’s yet another interesting area of exploration for products that would be really useful, even though I don’t really have a good picture of what they would look like.
We also discussed how the use of such technologies changes our communication. The difference between writing letters to keep in touch versus an email list, for instance. The letter is good for deep one-on-one communication. The email list is good for shallow group awareness. Is one of these “better” than the other? It depends on your values. I think both have their place. I’m definitely in much better touch with my college group of friends because of various email lists than I ever would have been if I had to write individual letters to all of them. At the same time, I have my core group of close friends who I see regularly, even though some of them live on the other coast.
As somebody pointed out, to some extent, the email lists promoting shallow community awareness are a virtual replacement for the small town community we once had, where everybody was peripherally aware of everybody else’s business, thanks to a few gossip-mongers at the general store. Instead of being tied to a physical location, though, these communities are now online, a topic which I started to address in this old post, where I point out that until recently, “the idea of being able to form a community with people who were not geographically co-located with you was laughable.”
I guess the point is that communication technology is not good or bad in and of itself. It’s how we use it. Certain technologies encourage certain ways of interacting, thank you McLuhan, but we still choose which technologies we use. If I want shallower group interactions, I use an email list. If I want a one-on-one conversation, I use instant messaging or a letter or a phone call or a personal visit. Having more options at our disposal is a good thing in my opinion, so long as we master how to use them effectively. Otherwise we disappear into information overload. And that’s where developing better virtual cues to guide us through these virtual communication spaces is a high priority. Hah! Managed to complete the circle and bring us back to where we started!