The need to communicate with other human beings is an essential part of being human and man had always found ways to keep-in-touch with fellows of his species, be it as cave drawings or scribbles on digital walls. Communication has always been influenced by medium used -- caves, papyrus, paper and glowing screen, as the progression goes. Marshall McLuhan in his seminal work of 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, declares that "The medium is the message." The dynamics of communication is a direct consequence of the medium used to communicate; with evolution of new media, the older tools and tactics used to drive strategic communication naturally become outdated -- in McLuhan's words, "The goose quill put an end to talk." Never before has the change in ways of communication been more dramatic as in the era of computers and smartphones.
The digital age has been instrumental in establishing real-time, 24-hour communication between people. What is the outcome of this digital shift? As with any topic even remotely related to the digital age, there is extensive debate on whether the era of technology has eased or eroded communication. Many academicians, like Steve May at the University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill, believe that despite bringing the world closer together, technology has stunted the growth of our personal communication skills.
Is that true?
Apparently so. There is one definite pitfall with digital communication -- the absence of facial clues. But such lack of facial clues is not new to the digital age. Perhaps from the time people sent messages through birds and messengers (assuming of course that the messenger did not emote), communication has lacked the salient features of face-to-face non-verbal conversation, the so called " Silent Language", as termed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. According to Hall, body language, facial expressions, voice inflections and stock mannerisms impart information in a register higher than mere words. But the difference between pre-internet non verbal communication (aka, letters, phone calls etc.,) and digital communication is that the former was an add on to regular face-to-face, but in the digital age, communication tools like instant messaging often replace face-to-face. A report on Teens, Smartphones & Texting by Pew Research, in 2012, showed that 63 percent of teens exchange text messages every day while only 35 percent socialize face-to-face on a daily basis.
One may argue that video chatting and such applications are virtual face-to-face meetings and can convey the silent language. Such arguments do not hold water in that most (ab)used form of digital communication is text messaging. Pew Research reports that 81 percent of cell phone users send or receive text messages, as against 21 percent who participate in video chat. The proof of the pudding is in the results of research on children's social skills vis-à-vis digital media use -- a study by UCLA has shown that the social skills of children is poorer in a digital environment than in a tech-free set up. And why is it important to understand the silent language? Understanding nonverbal social cues is critical because it allows modification of one's own behavior in response to the reactions of others.
Matter conveyed through texts (and often highly abbreviated texts that make purists gouge their eyes out) can also be misunderstood or lost in mental translation. Often, exclamation marks, which according to Fitzgerald, is akin to "laughing at your own jokes", and various combinations of colon/semicolon and brackets are necessary to underscore the sentiments of statements to avoid being misconstrued.
Another defect in remote communication -- the word "remote" being used as an antonym for face-to-face - is the opportunity for dishonesty. Online communication (like the earlier snail mail minus face-to-face) allows the communicator to adopt virtually any "avatar." This flexibility of personality affords the possibility of projecting to the recipient, an image that one chooses rather than what one is.
However it is not all downhill. The digital age positively affects interpersonal communication to people in long distance relationships. Microsoft's Nancy Baym found that the more intimate the relationship, the more digital media people use to communicate. According to her, digital and face-to-face communication is not a zero-sum game, but at least in close relationships, they are additive.
Technology enhanced oral communication is also useful in long distance education -- students from remote locations, or from all over the world can now easily communicate orally through video and audio conferencing tools. For example, students of languages in Australian universities overcome the problem of insufficient contact with native language speakers by using online audio and video tools that allow the development of aural, vocal and visual-cognition skills that are important in verbal and linguistic education. Oral group discussions in the form of video conferencing can help non-native speakers of a language with natural language negotiation and cultural intonations in ways that have hitherto not been possible due to geographic isolation/distancing.
Norms for digital communication are still evolving and people continue to argue about whether or not it is effective. Extensive on-line connectedness brought about by the digital age has undoubtedly changed our perceptions of our social environment. Communication, which used to be "localized" a few decades ago, is now, in the words of Professor Barry Welman, of the University of Toronto, now "glocalized," thanks to the advancements in technology. The digital age has, in effect, changed the ways we interact, work, relate, entertain, gain knowledge, conduct business, create and perhaps even live. How we use it to our advantage hinges critically on the balance we can maintain between digital tete-a-tete and face-to-face conversations, even if the face is inside a glowing screen.
Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who gets a kick out of untangling the increasingly tangled landscape of technology, parenting and education.