Saturday, January 22, 2005

Community and Communication

Disclaimer: Not researched. Not a single link. Simply food for thought.

Human communication has changed drastically in the last 200 years, from letters to telephones to e-mail to IM. But new forms of communication have changed the way humans interact with one another and, as a consequence, the way communities form and operate. It used to be that if you wanted to hold a conversation, you had to talk to someone face to face – turn to your spouse, visit a neighbor or relative, or attend a social gathering. Today, you can reach in your pocket, punch in a few numbers, and - voila! – instant conversation. Or, click on an icon and a conversation is at your fingertips.

Early community. Prior to the Internet, television, and telephones, people lived in physical communities. Particularly in smaller communities, everyone knew who everyone was because they saw them on a regular basis and there were only so many people to see. Information flowed freely through the grapevine (almost purely face-to-face communication), keeping everyone informed of what was going on with members of the community. You might not run into someone from the other side of town for a couple of months, but you still knew what was happening with them because you heard from your neighbor, who heard from their sister, who heard from the barber that they were having a good harvest this year.

If you wanted to hear how things were going with someone who lived outside of your physical community, letters were probably your primary form of communication. However, since it could take up to a few months (depending on distances) for letters to reach their destination, it was difficult for them to have much of a conversational quality. You might respond to something the recipient had written to you, but it was much more formal than much of the written that communication that happens today.

Telephone. Enter the telephone. It allowed those who lived in remote areas to reconnect with the outside world and, along with the car, allowed those who wanted to move out of their familiar communities to remain connected after they left. Families used to live in the same area for generations with occasional members moving away to start anew. Now, people regularly move not only to different towns, but different states and even different countries. But everyone is just a phone call away. The world shrank.

Mass communications. Mass communication (radio and then television), though not a form of direct communication, still greatly effected how we relate to one another. It started out as a community builder – people gathered at a neighbor’s house to listen to or watch their favorite programs. But as radios and televisions grew more common, it began to cause more physical isolation. Instead of going out with friends to the theatre or the movies, people stayed in to watch their own personal theatre. Images of a world that people might never get a chance to see or even hear about in real life were beamed into their living room. It was possible to be (or at least feel) more connected with the outside world or even an imaginary world than with the local community. People learned how to relate to a picture tube.

The introduction of cable increased viewing options and reduced the motivation for venturing outside the home. Communities were now constructed around activities rather than towns – attending church, going to school and related events, sports events, volunteer work, and so forth. And just as the car allowed people to move away from their communities, it allowed them to build communities away from their neighborhoods. As the local neighborhood became a less familiar place, people drew themselves into their homes and artificial communities.

Internet. Television taught us to relate to a picture tube. Computers and the Internet made it personal. Not only could you build a community outside of your neighborhood, you could build a community with people you had never met face to face. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, list serves, and blogs bring people with common interests together without regard to geography. E-mail and instant messaging allows for quick written communication between people. But while letter writing has much ceremony (write it, put it in and envelope, address it, stamp it, send it) that lends itself to more formal communication, writing an e-mail or and instant message is quick and simple. Inflection is introduced somewhat into written communication with emoticons. And, particularly with instant messages, misunderstandings that happen when words are written and not spoken can be quickly corrected. Now, you don’t even have to hear a human voice or speak to hold a conversation. Just type, point, and click.

But just as the Internet is enabling geographically scattered communities, it is also helping local communities by making it inexpensive for local operations to distribute information. It is much cheaper to send an e-mail to a list serve than to mail out newsletters. Sometimes, it’s also easier to find information on the Internet. When is that movie you wanted to see playing? Go out and buy a newspaper. Or check the web. Are there any concerts this weekend? Search a backlog of newspapers, hoping something will be in there, just happen to be listening to the radio or the news when they announce that information, or check the web. Some of this is due to local newspapers and radio stations setting up websites. But some of it is due to the fact that setting up a website is relatively easy and inexpensive. And as more people become computer literate, the more essential these websites will become.

The Final Link. Cell phones as the final link in the inescapable community. Now you are never out of contact. Your community is with you everywhere you go. You can contact them and they can contact you. You can even send and receive text messages if you’re not partial to hearing a voice. Need help? Make a call. Wondering why your teenager is out so late? Call them up. Just want to hear your significant others voice? One touch dialing will connect you even faster.

But all of this technology has done something to conversation as well as community. Just as you never leave your community, a conversation never really ends. With caller ID, you know who is calling you. And if you already know why they’re calling (say, if you left a message via e-mail or voice mail to call you), why even say hello? Just launch in. E-mails are like this as well. Unless you haven’t written in a while, why have an intro? Just get to the point. Those formalities just get repetitive after a while anyway. An e-mail leads to an instant message which turns into a phone conversation that ends when you meet at the restaurant and continue talking face to face. Perhaps a conversation ends when you run out of things to say. But over e-mail, there is no good-bye. No conclusion. Just lack of response.

Relationships formed or supported mainly online are like e-mail conversations. They are simple to start and maintain. And the end them, you simply stop. If you stopped going to church and ran into a fellow parishioner at the store, they might ask where you’ve been and why you don’t come anymore. But if you cease participating in an online community, it is much easier to just vanish.

The Future. For the sci-fi geeks out there, I think this metamorphosis in human interaction is a necessary step in behavioural evolution for humanity if we ever want to visit other worlds. If we can learn to accept the drawn out communication inherent in e-mail, we can learn to accept the drawn out communication resulting from truly long distance travel. As people are conditioned to accept electronic communication as replacement for some (though probably not all) human interaction, it may be easier for them to psychological survive the long trip to other worlds. It will even be possible for people distributed among colonies on several moons, planets, and asteroids to build a community in cyberspace, making real space nearly irrelevant. Chat rooms and IM will be limited to a single world, but everything else opens the universe to everyone.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11/22/2005 5:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home