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Communication by device is not really communication

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Something is happening to human communication because of our reliance on technology. Technology is a mediating force – getting in between actual humans and their interaction.

Technology also affects us physically and mentally. If you work on a computer all day, you are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome and a stiff neck. Use a hand-held device, and your dexterity, especially with your thumbs, may improve.

Thomas H. P. Gould adds a few statistics and examples to these observations. The University of Toronto Press has published his findings and opinions. Countless blogs and “blog-like platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter accounts) … have no visitors except their authors.” He says these may number in the billions. Using devices to communicate reduces the need for face-to-face “human to human conversations.”

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But we’re plugged in and connected more than ever in history, you might say. Really? Gould notes that technology robs us of “sight … environment, smell, ambient noise, temperature – all those things that are not and cannot be included in … a video transmission.”

Decades ago, when we were studying the saturation of markets by television signals, even when there were only four networks, we noticed the demise of American regional accents. This was true in the UK and Newfoundland as well. Gould goes further by predicting that “languages will fade into one as our cultures blend into one.”

What of the culture of online “communities?” They don’t fall into any traditional definitions of communities. “[P]eople come and go as they wish, with little or no tracking (or ‘stickiness’).” There’s no physical setting, and the interaction is mainly in one direction – not much of a social group. Gould likens this modern communication to “conversing with each other in a pitch-black room using voice maskers.”

Sharing time with others is increasingly rare. So is any interaction. Facebook posts do not ask for a response. Pictures of events are brute facts, sometimes generating a “like” or comment but not requiring one. Few Facebook posters care who is listening, looking, or reading. Email users, on the other hand, do care and tailor their messages appropriately. Facebook posters treat their own work as temporary, not caring if it’s stored, catalogued, or accessed ever again.

Gould may have captured a phenomenon we all see at banks, retail stores, and anywhere someone is supposed to be helping. The unhelpful helper starts by staring at the computer screen. Often the helper’s eyes aren’t moving, so the guess is there’s no reading going on – the screen is just a refuge from personal contact. Then come questions, starting with your phone number. Remember when we did business by name? These conversations can go on for a bit with more questions, answers, verifications, clarifications, and such. Often the interaction does not actually lead anywhere other than to advise you to go on the web and do the task yourself.

Our decades-long focus on communication may have dulled awareness that it’s best done two-way. Keeping actual humans at bay via devices is not really communication.

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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