The evolution of communication

3 November 2014
3 Nov 2014
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

What do you do in one second? Check the time? Click on a link? Read a word from a book? What about the entire world – what does the world do in a second? Over 1,000 Skype calls, over 4,000 tweets, and a whopping 1,700,000 emails are sent around the world in a second. But wind the clock back just twenty-five years, and the first website was not yet created*. The way people communicate has been constantly evolving throughout history, from good old clay tablets to written words, then to paper books, sound recorders, typewriters, and telephones. But the Internet has created something that’s entirely different from anything that came before it in just the last 25 years. An unimaginably fast network of electricity connecting literally dozens of billions of devices around the world. But…is this all good?

Ever since the first email was sent across the internet in 1971, the Internet has always been a supplement for what some may call “real-life” communication**. Rather than sending a handwritten letter, we just type out an email. Rather than talking directly with a friend to cancel a meeting, I just call them, or even more convenient, I text them a few words. With electronic ways to communicate replacing some face-to-face communication, there’s a lot of talk about how the internet culture is “ruining” or otherwise damaging the traditional culture. But is this really such a big problem? I want look into this today.

In order to say that something is lost, we first need to see what it originally was. So what exactly is so important about communication and language? I think we use language for a few main things. First, the most straightforward purpose would simply be to record and communicate information. Things like books, newspapers, web articles, and lectures would fall in this category. Were that the only reason we use language, foreign language classes would be infinitely easier. However, a significant part of why we communicate the way we do is because words actually contain much more than just its dry meaning. The words red, scarlet, and crimson are technically all the same color***, but they have radically different emotional responses. In other words, we use language to communicate meaning and communicate with meaning.

Looking at how our way of communication has changed in the recent years, I don’t think we’ve lost any meaning or human emotion in the way. In fact, I think the fact that we are able to communicate with more people, in more ways, in more places help us deliver our message with more meaning to more ears. I think a well-written email can be just as sincere as a handwritten letter, and the same goes for texts and the social media. It’s even more true in the case of voice or video calls. If technology has changed the way we communicate in any way, it has given us a wider range of ways to talk to greater numbers of people. Convenience can coexist with thoughtfulness, and just because it’s easier to type something out than to hand-write it in near-perfect calligraphy doesn’t mean the typed version of the message is any less or any more meaningful. It’s just that we can now do that from almost anywhere, to nearly any one of the four and a half billion people online.

In fact, that’s the more important aspect of electronic communication and the Internet: our possible audience is practically limitless. If you have something to say about a topic, there is almost a guarantee that somewhere in the world, there is someone else who is just as interested in that thing. The audience for your crazy ideas, your quirky fanfiction, or the question you’re dying to answer is no longer limited to those who physically know you, and that’s pretty incredible, as something that just isn’t possible with the traditional ways of communicating.

I do think there is something lost, though, with the rush of newer communication methods. When people talk about missing the days before the internet and electronic communication, more often than not, they’re probably talking about the loss of the medium more than the meaning itself. In other words, it’s the same kind of loss people feel for old-style typewriters and record discs. It’s not that we don’t create documents more effectively or we have lower quality music without those older pieces of technology: we do. What we have lost in the time are the technologies themselves. We don’t see typewriters or record discs as often anymore, and that’s still something people miss. I think many people’s current stance on SMS, texting, email, and social media are comparable. It’s not that words said through the newer media are any less powerful or any less full of meaning; the new media are, to an extent, driving the old media into semi-obsoleteness, and that’s what we feel as if we’re losing.

The way we communicate with the world is going through a radical shift right now. The Internet’s been here for twenty years, but compared to the age of the languages that we use, that’s not even a blink of an eye. Still, just in the last few years, technology has dramatically changed how we talk to our friends and the world’s audience. As we navigate our way into the coming age of ubiquitous communications technology, I think it’s extremely important that we remember to retain the meaning behind our words online as those offline, because it’s certainly possible.

* In fact, the first web server was created exactly twenty-five years ago next week.

** As in, the Internet isn’t real? Also, to anyone questioning why the first email came before the first website: websites and emails both are sent across the internet through different protocols, or ways in which computers communicate. The first email protocol (SMTP) was invented before the first website (hypertext) protocol, HTTP.

*** Give or take a couple dozen nanometers of wavelength.

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