I have been thinking about communication quite a lot over the last few weeks. I guess it has been one of the major themes of my life, in its current phase. There are the Comms-related jobs I am applying for. The letters, emails, FB-chat and skype conversations and miscommunications with various friends across the Atlantic. And the complete lack of communication with my wife, as we enter the legal process, out only contact mediated through lawyer-friends and official communiqués… Oh, and the wonderful Phil Jackson has left Facebook, and left the rest of us with lots of difficult questions in the process.
All of these different things leave me wondering about the very nature of human communication. We have changed so much, as a species, since the days when all our interaction was face-to-face. Not since the invention of paper has it been necessary to be in the same room as the person we are interacting with, yet I wonder if psychologically we have caught up with the fact, especially as the wonderful world of electronics is constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to communicate – and maybe even what it means to be human.
I can now ‘chat’ or speak to a friend in America, or Australia, or Hong Kong, in real time. Suddenly, at the press of a button, the thousands of miles between us shrink to almost nothing, and we converse. We can speak (or type) almost as if we were in the same room, sitting close to one another. And yet we are not in the same room, and our interaction, however easy and ‘natural’ is mediated by the medium we are using; it is changed and altered by it, however subtly.
A skype conversation yesterday afternoon, with a wonderful, beautiful friend is a good example. We talked, we looked at each other, we laughed when the other laughed. But there was delay, there was (very irritating) static and interference, and however slight these affects were they were real, and they were accompanied by the knowledge that there was something very artificial in the interaction. We did not talk as freely and as easily as we would had we been in the same room. The natural silences and lapses in our conversation were somehow more pronounced, more awkward than they would have been in person. We were communicating, face-to-face, but it was not the same, as not as genuine as it has been in the past, when we have had the privilege to be in the same room.
The same, and other different issues exist with other mediums. I use Facebook chat a lot, to quickly message friends, and to have long conversations with Americans. I love it – there is a strange connection even with seeing a green dot next to someone’s name; here you both are, online at the same instant, only a click away from interacting. Yet even when in the middle of deep conversation via chat, there is a huge difference from real conversation. There is no real emotion conveyed. We are never fully present to each other – it is so easy to walk away, come back, be listening to music, watching TV, browsing the net, all while engaging in conversation, and all without the other person knowing. You can also be engaging in three or four such conversations at once, which would be completely impossible in person.
Even email, which of all our electronic communiqués is the most similar to a more traditional medium – that of the letter, has its issues and subtle affects. Email has, in fact, been the biggest trouble to me, as I have tried to communicate complex emotions to one particular American friend. Unlike a letter email is so instant; it is far too easy to write something and fire it off without enough (or any) thought. I don’t think there has been a single email to this particular friend that I haven’t re-read after sending and regretted some part of, and that is despite many of them being drafted several times. There is something about the medium that means the care, time and forethought of a letter are just not possible: emails are too quick to write and too easy to send.
The father of media theory, Marshal McLuhan, famously said that “the medium is the message”. Basically, the very nature of what we intend to communicate to someone is altered, often fundamentally, by the medium we use to do so. For example, proposing to someone over YouTube is very different to doing so in a single romantic moment alone with the person you love. The intention on the proposer might be the same, but what is conveyed is fundamentally altered – the video conveys the proposal, but also the proposer’s desire for recognition and approval. The words may be identical, but the message is changed.
So, our communication is changed, what we say by the way we say it. These electronic forms are different from being in the same room, having a one-to-one, even if we don’t always appreciate by how much. Phil, in one of his many statements about the nature and affects of Facebook, has even said that Facebook “denies the limits of human form” (an by extension, all electronic communications): it removes the boundaries of time and space from the way we interact with each other.
And yet, I wonder…
My first thought, on reading Phil’s thoughts about human form, were as follows:
“Have we surpassed our physical limitations? We are no longer one person, limited by a pinpoint of temporal and geographic nature, we have electronically surpassed these constraints, to move beyond… we have Evolved(?)”
As human beings, there are several things that make us different from other animals. One of which is that we have always been, to some extent, ‘fuzzy’ from a temporal point of view. We are not fixed completely in the present, the ‘now’, but are able to stretch our conscience back into the past, and project somewhat into the future. There is, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “…eternity in the hearts of men”: we can contemplate our birth and our death; know the changing of the seasons; learn from the mistakes of ourselves and others; predict outcomes of events; ponder on the nature of the universe.
Yet now, we can extend ourselves far beyond even that. We can be ‘present’ in a room in America and a street in London at the same moment, as we talk on a mobile: our consciousness is simultaneously in both places. We can converse, however partially, across vast distances, across time zones. Is this an extension of our existing nature? Or have we changed?
The fact is that, however much I know the limits of these different media, however much I regret the way that skype ‘awkwardises’ my conversations, email trivialises my missives and Facebook turns me into a voyeur, these are the only ways I have of communicating with distant friends. Without these imperfect vessels, I would have no contact with dear friends, because it is impossible for us to sit in the same room and talk face-to-face (Oh! If only wishing made it so!). And some how, even knowing the changes, the limitations, imperfect human communication is far more valuable to me than no communication at all.
Our human nature has changed, as our society has changed. We are spread out. Uprooted. Flung to the four winds. No longer to we grow up, live, work and die within a single community. Many of us no longer know our childhood friends, no longer live (or have any intention of living) in the communities of our upbringing. We have changed, perhaps even we have evolved, and these electronic media become the extensions of our humanity that enable us to connect with those we chose to love. They are imperfect, fragile, broken, as everything we touch is. But they are what we have.
My love to those I know and care for, whatever part of the world you are in.