With all the incessant advances in communications technology in recent years, one might expect that we’d all be communicating much better these days. The fact is–we aren’t. One of the most common fallacies of our day is that with technological progress necessarily comes a betterment of lifestyle, of society. But an excellent means of communication should not be confused with excellent communications. Consider cell-phone technology-with each new advancement in gadgetry, the technology itself might very well lend itself to a more convenient means of communication, but it actually becomes a less effective one. Yes, I’m now more easily reachable; but when you do reach me… might… because I have to see to the… so far as I’m concerned. If you don’t get my meaning, well, that’s my point.
“Can you hear me now?” has become so commonplace that it has to be the frontrunner for telecommunications cliché of the decade. Of course, the answer to the rhetorical question is: no, I can’t hear you – at least not clearly enough to decipher what you’re saying. How about all those times you chat on and on, relating some make-or-break bit of information only to discover several minutes into your well-oiled soliloquy that no one is at the other end of the tin can? Without your knowing it, your call was dropped at some undetermined time in the recent past.
I’ve yet to hear anyone point out the obvious, but we rarely experienced these communications breakdowns with “land lines” (as they are now known) except perhaps when phoning Okinawa in the wake of a natural disaster. I know I will be accused of being a Luddite or a Marxist or a member of Weather Underground, but it all used to be so elegantly simple. When the phone rang, you picked up the receiver, you spoke, you were heard and understood–almost as if the other person was standing right there next to you–talking with you in person.
Even person-to-person (in the flesh) conversation is getting quite difficult these days. Have you ever noticed how cell-phones tend to estrange you from those who are in your presence? When I’m with certain friends and acquaintances I can’t seem to carry on a conversation with them for more than a few minutes at a time because their phones keep jingling, jangling, buzzing, vibrating, or erupting into a grainy techno-version of Benny and the Jets (Did you know that Billboard has a “Top 100 Hot Ringtones” chart?”). I have had to face up to the cold, hard facts– I’m apparently not as important or interesting as the voice at the other end of that phone. I’m evidently not the only one. In restaurants, it is not uncommon to see four or five people dining together at the same table and all of them talking on cell phones–presumably to others who are not at the table. The real corker, however, is that most of these people are talking about what? About nothing: “It’s, like, so cool to be on the phone!” Whatever happened to table manners?
And, don’t you just love it when you step into an elevator and the woman already standing in there asks you a rather bizarre question such as “did you ever try using dandruff formula?” or “so, how was your procedure?” Then, you realize, only after begging her pardon, that she’s not talking to you after all, but merrily carrying on a rather intimate cell-phone conversation using one of those Bluetooth headsets that looks like an outsize hearing aid.
The cell phone pet peeve that produces the most hives for me, however, is this lovely paradox of the communications world: the more that a person relies on his or her cell phone, the more difficult that person is to reach. Rare is the occasion that I dial up a cell phone number and that person actually answers. I typically get a range of recorded messages, from: “the wireless customer is out of the service area” to “leave your name and number after the bleep” etc. Since cell phone voice-messaging is increasingly more complicated to access (due to adding more and more features to make it more and more convenient), these voice mail messages never seem to get delivered to the intended recipient.
Another popular form of miscommunication in our post-email techno-world also involves the mobile phone. It’s called “text messaging” and might as well be a foul-smelling, hairy beast, so unwelcome I find it. This stultifying pastime has created its own set of problems, not the least of which is the bastardization of language. The now generally accepted text messaging syntax-shorthand not only eschews standard punctuation and grammar, spelling and capitalization, it also substitutes numbers for words. Whoa, now we’re on the slippery slope. You see, once you dumb down language for one medium, it’s difficult not to dumb down language in all media. That may explain why fully grown adults, old enough to vote, drink and buy lottery tickets send me silly emails, riddled with smiley face emoticons, saying things such as:
sry av headake cnt stop by 2 giv u ck. canit w8 til nxt wk?
Seriously now, say what?
Those who choose to communicate in such an atavistic way–all the while convinced they are terribly avant-garde-– have no little problem with ambiguity, subtly, nuance and every other written (and verbal) communication device that educated folk make use of to make themselves reasonably understood. Sure, it’s convenient to send jabberwocky “txt” messages in a nonce, but am I so lowly and unimportant in the grand scheme of things that I deserve little more than the few nanoseconds it takes to compose gibberish and hit the send button, all of which can be done with eyes closed? Is this, in the end really about efficient communication?
All of this adds up to a communications breakdown that has been largely unheralded; I’d even say conveniently ignored. Sure, there has been a glut of everyone’s-addicted-to-cell-phones critiques, but they’re typically limited to dire prognostications that cell phones “give us tumors, gut our memories, and jackhammer our brains,” as one commentator has poignantly noted. (Of course, there are plenty of other ways we’ve long been gutting our memories, jack-hammering our brains and giving ourselves tumors.) Never mind that communications technology hasn’t produced a better citizenry or better manners. The fact is it hasn’t produced a more efficient and effective means of communication. But look on the bright side: What is has produced is the “search for a signal” dance.