Modern technology and the decline of communication

As humans our want to be social and to communicate is a part of us. The sharing of ideas has been with us since even before we were able to speak. I would even argue that this internal desire is the reason our species has done so well together. But of recent years I have watched the decline of language and communication as we humans twist our thinking to match the capabilities of machines.

Before the digital times

It may shock some that there was a time before the Internet and a time before mobile phones and while it is completely nostelgic of me to remember it, I do remember it with a fondness. The times of analogue were wonderful and perhaps seen through rose tinted glasses thanks to my parent's and how I was brought up. I had the luxury of having two teachers as parents, who saw the power of education and because them, I am who I am and I cannot thank them enough.

Before the darker digital times, I spent my hours investigating things. Discovering a new sense of power and enlightenment in the science books my father would leave lying round. It did not come without mishap however. After the age of 10, I discovered, numerous times, the power of electricity, having felt it's bite several times during various experiments in my dad's garage. I will simply say that 240 volts hurts. That is not to mention the numerous times I created chlorine gas by mistake and had to evacuate the garage or my quick learning of how to change a fuse when one of my latest experiments went horribly wrong.

During this time my father would bring home a computer from his school for the holiday period and I discovered a passion which I still have today. I saw a power in this tool, and with the first case of RSI I had when I was 11 programming in BASIC and 6502 assembler language, I saw a future. I fully admit that I am one of the luckiest people on this planet, I come from a loving and education fostering family and I found something that not only I believe I am good at, but I truly enjoy.

All power to the thumbs

Smaller computing devices grew, we had a desire to be contactable at all hours through mobile technologies. I was a late starter with regard to this technology, holding off to the ripe old age of 24 before owning my first mobile phone. After several years of illness and a desire to return to the working world, I learnt that to get a job, one needs to fit into this permanently contactable life and it worked. But where has this lead?

Small message service (SMS) had become a means of communication between us modern humans, 160 characters per idea and at the time, this needed to be typed using a numeric pad with your thumbs. I never got it. What great idea can be portrayed in 160 chracters or less and be written with your thumbs?

What great idea can be portrayed in 160 chracters or less and be written with your thumbs?

But we changed how we communicated, adapted to the device rather than adapting the device to us. A new, short form of language appeared, which to anyone who had not be exposed to it seemed like a non-sensical jumble of characters. We devolved into using short, single character replacement for words such as "u" for you and "4" for for, it was a necessity to adapt to the message length.

Decentralised networking

Parallel to the mobile revolution came the great Internet. With any leap in technology it is my inner cynic (who I try to keep at bay) who reminds me that all technologies come about for one of two reasons: sex or war. In the case of the Internet it is both. During the times of nuclear war, the Internet, a decentralised series of communications nodes, would allow generals in their bunkers to still get the latest porn.

I halt my cynical side to remember my first experience. I remember my first year of University, using the computer labs to chat via a Linux based chat client with an old friend in another city. It was incredible. What he typed I could see and I could send him my ideas and thoughts instantly. I also remember writing my first HTML web page, a complete jumble of nonsense written through a terminal using vi. It was hard work and not the realm of the normal human. To get content on the internet at this phase of development you needed to know what you were doing, so the content authors required some intelligence and minus my first nonsense web page, the content, while not pretty, had substance because of the effort that was required.

Separation of content from view

The separation of data from the display component came about and born was the term "dynamic content" and it created a new term "blog". The irony is not lost on me that I am using exactly this type of technology to write this thought. Web pages no longer had to be handcrafted, only the wrapping application layout needed that. The content could be generated far easier and released to the world at a faster rate. But there was still an overhead of setting up on these sites and so the individual that went to that effort required some form of education.

The content within a blog entry was about a written page of information, a drink of a coffee's worth of data but still had substance in most cases. We had entered an article mentality which paralleled that of the printed newspaper.

Unsocialable networking

And along came Facebook, a means of abstracting one's human persona from that of their real one. Initially restricted to only a select few US University students, it was opened up to the rest of the world and the world ate it up. This allowed anyone with an internet connection the ability to communicate with one another. The advent of the status update gave rise to single paragraphs of data being thrown back and forth amoungst the masses, often pointless sharing of what one was having for dinner or their most recent bowel movements. Rarer were the actual enlightening chunks of information that we desire to grow and learn.

New words crept into our language once unheard: "unfriend" for example. And later nouns suddenly become verbs: "inbox me". This is not a new behaviour as most of us now don't search for things on the internet, we "google" it - a fantastic marketing term which we spread around for them for free. But more importantly, as the number of users grew and the ease of sharing information developed, the quality of the information declined into a sea of noise and mess.

Minimalist statements

On the backs of the SMS revolution, Twitter rose to power giving the same capabilities that we were using on our mobile devices through SMS. To allow us the same form and similar length of messaging to a large audience. And as we are so good at doing when we want something, we adapt to it. Our language declined to match the character limit of a "tweet". Tweet is something a bird does and while birds are wonderful and magnificent creatures they are not something to aspire to.

Tweet is something a bird does and while birds are wonderful and magnificent creatures they are not something to aspire to.

Twitter also gave rise to the categorisation technique called the hash-tag. Now our ideas had not only been confined to 140 characters or less but part of that was taken up in the keyword search terms. Again our ideas get shortened to match that of the technology limitations.

The whole concept is very clever, I do not doubt that but the larger audience and lower requirements for usage have lead to what can only be defined as corporate spam and even more disturbing was the ability of those to voice their hatred and bring shame upon us as humans. An example is these series of messages via twitter which were fortunately publicly shamed. After reading this I was left disgusted as both a male and a human, but our technology allowed it.

You are here

So we come to where we are now. What will our next step be? A cynical me sees a new service which allows a single character, the digital equivalent of a grunt, to be published out into the barren waste lands of the Internet. "T", apparently I feel like the letter "T" today. The optimist in me, worn down by constant disappointment but still engrained me thanks to my parents, can see us breaking free of the binds of restrictive technology. To not adapt to the restrictions of technology, forcing our ideas to be confined to that of a character limit but actually adapting the technology to match how we behave and to improve our behaviour and to broaden our minds. We all feel similar things, pain, loneliness, happiness, misery - it human to suffer and to feel pleasure. I hope we adapt our technology so we can share and communicate these feelings and thoughts to the fullest, not have those powerful human need to communicate to be restricted to a single character.