Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Communication Breakdown

Communication is a complicated business. So much of it relies on the subtlest nuance, the most fleeting gesture and the crude precision of text does not even begin to capture it. I suppose one of the reasons why almost everyone likes to receive a "proper letter" is that the hand-writing can convey some of that subtlety. A slightly more flowing character here, a heavier nib impression on the paper there, all of these elements almost subliminally add richness and deeper meaning to the actual contents of the words themselves. Direct face to face speech is of course the gold standard of discourse. Telephones on the other hand give us the impression that we are conversing but once again the element of gesture is lost and thus much of the deeper meaning goes with it. We are frequently misrepresented on the telephone because we are misunderstood. Whilst we might be choosing our words poorly, we, consciously or not, use gesture a lot and we are hamstrung when we can't use that in dialogue. Personally, I also don't like that I can't look the other person in the eye; that connection says so much that words never can - it is a basic component of human communication, and yet we lose it entirely when we use the 'phone or text-based interaction.

All that said provided we remain aware of the limitations of our various outlets for expression there is much going for them. I think that's why I like e-mail. It's sufficiently new and has been adopted in that hinterland between writing a letter and a phone call that we are aware of what it can and cannot do whereas we still cling to this idea that a phone call is actually communication. And by this same rationale I don't like instant messaging much. We think we're having a chat, but we aren't. All the subtely and the majority of the subliminal meaning is lost because we are constrained by small chunks of discrete text with no direct feedback from the recipient. E-mail does not connive to dupe us in this way. We are aware that each mail is a missive in its own right, a self-contained article that may reference previous statements from sender or recipient but stands on its own. I.M. doesn't really do this and I don't feel comfortable with it. The use of emoticons is an attempt to rectify this somewhat but they are crude and often devisive since what one person sees as a friendly smile at the end of a sentence, someone else may take to mean that the sender is a bit simple or glib. There is no subtlety and the opportunities for gross misunderstandings are still massive (though we fool ourselves that the emoticons convey precise meaning). One interesting variant which doesn't suffer from this dichotemy between what we think a device can do and what it actually does is SMS text messaging. Once again, like e-mail, it does not misrepresent what it is capable of. Small chunks of text and the expectations that go with that help to modulate our response to a text-message. Misunderstandings are rarer and messages tend to be direct and explicit in nature, partly because it is hard to be expansive in 160 characters but mostly because there is a mental separation between thought and text, so we more consciously compose our SMS messages than our disconnected stream of consciousness I.M. ramblings.

There is nothing inherantly wrong or bad with these technologies; the problem lies in our expectations of what they can do and how we use them based on those expectations. I still dislike the phone because I cannot help the feeling that I am less able to express myself than I can in person and yet the other caller may not pick up on, or will find it easier to misrepresent, that which I am able to convey. The closer to, without actually being, direct face to face communication a technology is the more dangerous it is and the easier we find it to be fooled that true interaction has taken place. Caveat Emptor.

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