CSIS | Center for Strategic and International Studies
Except for in-person, speech-based communication, it could be argued that all communication is technologically based. With the advent of written language -- itself a kind of technology -- humanity experimented with varying forms of technology to record their thoughts. From the stone tablet to parchment to the printing press to computers, our methods of written communication have continued to change, although several remain in use simultaneously.
Similarly, we've come a long way from Edison's inventions of the phonograph and telegraph in the 1870s and Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in 1876. Yet many of us still use telephones as well as cell phones, even though the latter has been in use on a broad scale for more than 20 years (thankfully having slimmed themselves down along the way).
In many respects, with the proliferation of communications technologies, it increasingly falls to each individual to choose with which of these technologies he or she will engage. After all, it's not as if there is a shortage of technological gadgetry out there for the using. In our age of abundance, it's as much of a philosophical choice as a practical or economic one. And for all of the hype of each new innovation within communications technologies, old, or "legacy," technologies still persist. A massive amount of data is transmitted through fiber optic cables and stored on hard drives, yet older tape drives and even-older telephone wires still have their uses. Mechanical technologies can remain as useful, or cheap, as electronic technologies. At the same time, communicating through an old technology -- say, by sending a letter through snail mail -- now produces a sense of nostalgia, or, as the case may be, impatience, in some people. That can be its own benefit, and a reason for looking to the past.
Over the past two decades, technology has transformed communication by making it more and more pervasive. Advances in computer and telephone technology have created an explosion in the ways we can reach each other: by fax, cell phone, e-mail, text message, blog, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Is it too much of a good thing? A survey commissioned in the U.K. found that respondents spent an average of 3 hours and 45 minutes talking on the phone, e-mailing and sending text messages [source: BBC News]. Some of these communication tools allow us to work more efficiently; for example, a manager can send a meeting agenda to the whole office with one e-mail, a process that once would have required typing a memo, making copies, and distributing them to each desk.
Other new forms of communication create as many problems as they solve. Facebook is a popular way for friends and family members across the world to stay in touch. But it also encourages connections between people who would not otherwise be talking to each other, adding to a pervasive sense of information overload.
Another concern about the ever-increasing amount of communication is that it represents the triumph of quantity over quality. Texting and Twittering, by their very natures, value short, punchy statements over lengthy, thoughtful analysis. Such forms of communication may well contribute to an overall dumbing-down of conversations and the ascendance of impersonal updates over personal interactions.
In their book Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy, authors Chris Meyer and Stan Davis say that thriving in the new, communication-based economy means learning how to filter all the information we receive in a more efficient manner [source: PBS]. The secret? To use the right tools (such as effective spam blockers) to keep out distracting messages, so we can focus on the ones that matter.
Technology has reshaped communication by democratizing discourse within societies. But the newest technologies aren’t always the real game-changers; sometimes what we think of as old technologies are even more important, says Jon B. Alterman, director of the CSIS Middle East Program.
For example, just before the Egyptian uprising in early 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians joined Facebook groups that bitterly complained about the status quo. But when protests began on January 25, the Internet and social media only brought a few hundred Egyptian activists into the streets. Their chants about economic disparity swelled the numbers to a few thousand. Once they reached a few thousand, they became a verifiable television event, and once televised, their number swelled to the millions.
When al Jazeera started covering the Egyptian protests, the multimedia coalesced into a message of revolution that touched the majority of Egyptians. The numbers speak volumes: in an International Republican Institute poll in April, 84 percent of Egyptians polled said television was their most important source of information about the protests, only six percent pointed to Facebook. Twitter didn’t even register.
Technology has helped us store large amounts of information with ease. We can store files in computers rather than file folders, and we can send e-mail instead of mailing paper documents. Wireless networking technology enables us to access the Internet without having to be connected with cables. Cell phones and BlackBerrys enable us to communicate faster and send documents without having to use a desktop computer. However, many believe that communication technology has created an environment in which speed has taken precedence over accuracy. Bad grammar habits abound in the age of e-mail and texting. A promotional study found that 85 percent of 5,000 business correspondence samples had at least one spelling or grammatical error [source: Pirozzolo].
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