Musings on Methods of Communication

28 10 2011

Looking out my window, there is a man with a small child—probably four or five years old—walking down the sidewalk.  The man is looking into his cell phone, probably at a text.  The child is tugging at the man’s pants, trying to get him to go the other direction—trying to get his attention to look at something fascinating like a squirrel or a dead bug.  But the man is distractedly continuing.  He’s not necessarily ignoring his child—he is tugging back as if to say, “No, we have to go this way,” but he is detached.  He is otherwise engaged in whatever is on the screen of that phone.

Distracted parents are nothing new, and we can travel back in time and see the same scene with other devices.  Ten years ago, the person would be talking on the phone.  Thirty years ago, the man may be hurrying home to a land-line to retrieve a message on an answering machine.  Forty years ago, the man may be engrossed in a newspaper story as he walked down the sidewalk.  While the distractedness and preoccupation is not new, overall there does seem to be a shift back to communicating via text as opposed to verbally.

Methods of communication have changed over time.  From Gutenberg to the telegraph to fax machines to smart phones, technology has facilitated grand sweeping changes to the methods we use to transmit information from one person to another.  The curmudgeon in me wants to rail at the tide of progress, lamenting the “less personal” approach taken in the present time, but surely a person in the Renaissance may have said the same thing about moveable type.  “What?  You can just mass-produce copy after copy of this manuscript?  Where’s the time spent pondering the true meaning of the text?  If you’re just blindly churning them out, you aren’t spending the hours with each letter, forcing you to ponder what is really behind it.”

I am finally getting a new cell phone plan today, and I have come to the realization that I will need to break down and allow for more text and data and less calls.  Texting is something that I have a hard time with.  Without the nuances of inflection and intonation, I have had many a text message received poorly.  What’s more, I think in longer sentences than the text message is designed for.  It takes me forever to type out a response to someone’s question that may be as simple as, “Where are you going for lunch?”  The straightforwardness of the language required and the expected brevity of the messages lead me to connect the text message with the telegraph.  It’s like we’re moving backwards.  The only difference between now and 1909 is that we don’t need a messenger to deliver the text to us—that messenger is in our pockets all the time.

These are more than telegram-delivery boys.  They can instantly send our messages out—not just between cell phones, but to the entire internet.  Maybe you’re even reading this blog on a smart phone.  We are no longer tied to our homes or wi-fi hotspots to post a blog, status update, or tweet to the entire world.  Everyone can see what we have to say!  And yet, we walk along sidewalks, gazing into our phones, ignoring each other as we pass by in real life.  We can communicate with everybody and yet we talk to nobody.

If we are communicating without contact, I question how real the communication is.  Through all our posts and texts and blogs, are we saying anything of consequence?  Is there any action that comes from all this information transmission?  Are those actions and consequences real, or are they hyperreal?  Of course there are real-world consequences resulting from digital communication.  Just ask Anthony Wiener.  But inadvertent results are far from intentional.  With the power of such mass communication, what more can we learn about and from each other and what can that help us learn about ourselves?

For Contemporary Critique, I sit at a computer and type essays with the intent that they will be read by many, many people.  Sixty years ago, I would have needed a publisher to do this.  Twenty years ago, I still would have needed access to a relatively cheap copy shop and a few friends to help add content for a ‘Zine.  With this blog, I need no editor and no outside evaluation or affirmation, I can simply type, post, and know that out there, somewhere, at least one person has read and understood what I am saying.

As simple as they may seem, it takes at least a few people to put together an effective 'zine.

I am fond of warning artists against what I call “masturbatory” art—art that is solely made for the artist himself, disregarding its impact on any outside viewer.  Additionally, one of the chief purposes of object-based art is communication.  So it follows that I warn against masturbatory communication as well.  In text message- and internet post-based communication, we are working in a one-way fashion similar to art objects or television.  The artist makes the object with a specific intent, and the viewer is left to decipher that intent on his own.  I can send you a text message, but I can’t adjust my statement to a quizzical look or fine-tune my intent with a certain inflection.  With this one-way method of communication, it seems imperative that whomever may choose to use it put as much thought into their statements as an artist puts into his product.

Does this mean we need MFA programs for blog posts?  Editors for text messages?  Publisher-approval for tweets?  Those may all be a bit extreme.  But having an audience in mind for whatever the method of communication may lead to more clear choices, and more clear understanding down the road.


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