A small conclusion arrived in my head the other morning, as I woke. It was years in the making. It said that technology, and digital text-based forms of communication in particular, will never replace or surpass real-life human interaction.
I had held out believing it might happen since I was young, just by sheer exposure to more tech, more connectivity, and new tools over the years. Each new invention came with the implied promise of it improving the state of our communications. Now we can text each other at any hour of the day; send and receive messages anywhere we are. We'll never need to worry about being stranded. We can just work from home, now that we have email, chat, video conferencing. “If you can’t be there, feel there,” promises Facebook's home surveillance device.
Yet, in reality, all of these communication mediums provide only a low-fidelity imitation of human interaction. We only convey meaning through language; we smile back at pixels on glowing screens; we fall in love with text and fonts and photos and flirtatious emoji standardized in Unicode 6.0.
I remember as a teenager, texting my high school crush from my Nokia late at night. While I hadn't yet seen the horror of typing on today's numb touchscreens, I still had to deal with a complete lack of tone and non-verbal clues as I tried to figure out how to flirt, much less how to say anything at all. Mostly, there were a lot of lol's and haha's and emoticons (as they were called) to convey what would otherwise naturally come across to someone sitting in the same room with you.
Unlike the written letters of old, where we might have the time and space to luxuriate in language, and navigate toward precisely conveying a feeling, increasingly ubiquitous text-based tools have meant us blindly accepting this form of communication, absorbing it, and using it for everything, even when it makes no sense.
Then the increasing velocity of today's mediums have carried our expectations along with them, so that text and chat messages now require instant replies, and emails shouldn't be far behind. Raw communication gets faster but meaning runs slower, as we have less time to articulate something well, and no natural non-verbal tools to help us add weight to our words. A misstatement takes ever more statements to correct and certainty is harder to find, as we hope without final feedback that our last message was received well — a sort of social two generals' problem.
Today this pervades both our personal and professional lives, as we silently accept these new mediums without knowing if they'll actually improve our communication at all. Then, when we start to feel a little weird and overwhelmed from so much tenuous “conversation,” we somehow blame each other instead of the tools themselves.
This isn't to say that these tools have done us no good — far from it. They help remove the physical distances between us, at such little comparative cost. We've benefited immensely from them. But I think it's important to recognize illusions when we find them. The tech industry over-promises a lot, and we want to believe it all, even if it's a fairy tale. So if we finally see this reality, what can we accomplish?
There might be an opportunity to improve communication in real-life through tech — perhaps by connecting us digitally first, so that we might meet in person later. We might reduce our reliance on short-form text communication, and instead share longer text that we've had time to calmly craft (like a blog post, an email, a memo). We might choose high-fidelity communication first, and cheap, disposable forms of communication last. We might adjust our expectations to realize the inhumanity of our hyper-connected times, and respect the slower communication speeds we're naturally adapted to. We might take a critical look at the series of tubes that we communicate through, and realize how the tubes themselves end up shaping our interactions.
Overall, we might start to find a little sanity in a digital world that seems to put our humanity last. At least, that's what I hope.