Fragments in the shallows: digital communication and us


Hey, saying by just while their worth truly something … huh? I’ll rewind that later and start again by going back:

Hi D, K here. I got your number from A I hope that’s ok. How are you? Do you want to go out sometime?

No-one had ever sent a text to ask me out. More than a hundred characters too. I agreed to a drink. By text. It seemed heavy-handed to expect K to lift the phone as far as her ear just to hear me say ‘friends’ and I didn’t want to say yes in case talking on the phone was misinterpreted as an escalatory signal.

Two weeks later K texted me to cancel what was, by then, our twice-rescheduled rendezvous. She was dating someone else. It is a simple fact that we haven’t spoken since we saw each other at a friend’s dinner party a few days before her first message.

The episode was like a dream where part of your life unfolds in a different reality to the one you know and you realise, when it is over, that something good in the world has died.

It is an inescapable irony that the tools we use to communicate represent the distance between us. The distance is often psychological with telecommunications. I’m as guilty as any, once exchanging texts with a friend across an afternoon only to find it was too late to meet for a drink by the time we’d agreed on a place, and often writing emails when years ago I might otherwise have called.

What’s gone wrong?

Communication has been hijacked by an acronym. It is often wrongly equated with its plural, communications, and with the technology used to circulate information.

Communication and communications are different. To equate them is to confuse an essential human need with a convenient human construction. Communication is about an exchange of information and implies understanding. Communications relates more to how information (or anything else) is sent and received, and implies delivery. Communications is more about whether the mail gets through than if the message is understood.

Understanding communications only in terms of information is also misleading. It’s information and communications technology.

The communications network includes an electronic ‘information-only’ network. It also includes the roads, railways, airstrips and waterways that let people exchange, in person, hard-copy information (such as letters) and trade one form of work for another (such as a farmer selling food to buy a manufacturer’s fridge).

Take away telephony and you might have to drive up the road to make a doctor’s appointment. Remove the road and you might have to walk cross-country to buy milk from the nearest dairy.

Before the telegraph started connecting Australian cities in the 1850s, and then connected them to the rest of the world in the 1870s, information was delivered in the same way as any other product – by any combination of hand, horse and cart, rail, canal or riverboat, or seafaring ship. Innovation in speeding up delivery was mechanical, such as shipping going from sail to steam.

After the telegraph the most spectacular innovations in transporting information were in electronics. In the 1870s a telegraph message from Sydney could reach London in around seven hours rather than seven weeks.

Later the telephone let people speak directly with one another from fixed locations. Then email let us send and receive documents instantly. Now mobile phones let us do both.

The real change that mobile phones offer is not in how quickly information is sent, but how quickly we receive it. Generally speaking, it’s not sending information that takes time – most people can write and post a short letter quite quickly – but delivering it to a specific location.

With speed comes brevity and abstraction: the quicker the delivery, the shorter the message.

Texts are chit-chat. They are typically short questions or quips sent from the palm of one hand into another like a digital handshake. The fact phones can buzz just enhances the joke we are playing on ourselves – that these messages are now substitutes, rather than aids, to conversation.

Even so, there is a big difference between want to go out some time and cu@8@flinders station: the first seeks an intimate connection with a question of personal desire; the second confirms one with an agreed fact.

The problem now is that our messages are often so short they are just fragments of ideas that do not communicate much of who we are to the people who matter the most.

We are undermining the depth of our ideas and the sophistication of our language on the false belief that being connected is the same as communicating. Our thinking is more simplistic and less courageous than it was before we let mobiles take over the way we relate to one another. We now write fewer ideas of substance to more people who are always reachable.

The result is to live in the shallows of communication and human experience. In these circumstances, a text is implicitly saying ‘I know you will get this straight away, but you can answer when you like, if you want’, which means ‘your reply is more important than my statement’.

If we know someone has the phone in their hand (as the speed of a reply sometimes suggests) and do not call, but instead only text, is it because we fear the rejection or even closeness that comes with dialing a number, or is it that we don’t want to interrupt our lives for long enough to speak to a friend or write them a considered letter?

To send such a small piece of ourselves to someone we want to see and talk to is to take away the one true statement of ourselves we can make to another person: ‘I want to invite you into my life’. We get to a point where we don’t want anyone to hear emotion in our voice, that uncertain quiver, effusive joy, or matter-of-factness which speaks of desire. But that is exactly what the person on the other end of the line wants to hear.

Here are two easy ways to come out from behind the digital curtain the next time you think about someone you like.

Call them on a landline from a landline, or at least when you know they will be at home. You will be relaxed, more yourself, or at least not in transit, and distracted only by the essential things of life that surround you – kids, cooking or some missable soap drama. If you feel weird just say ‘I was going to text you, but …’

Write a card and post it. Your thoughts will be more plentiful, more wondrous than any two-bit text, and longer-lasting. In a world of instant delivery, your friend will likely experience an archaeologist’s wonder at discovering a day-old letter in the mail. Trust in their delight. If they reply with a text, write them another card in a week’s time.

And for people you don’t know? Put away the mobile, pull out your earbuds, and log-of those ‘internet dating’ sites forever. Re-read the first sentence of this article and accept that this is how inarticulate you will sound when you talk to the next stranger who awakens in you a new sense of life’s possibilities – the one at the tram stop, alone at a café, in line at the pictures or reading in the park.

A few months before he died in August last year at the age of 47, the American writer David Rakoff spoke about the end of his life and what he was about to lose. His voice was weak and his left arm was tucked into his jeans-pocket, limp from a nerve being severed after an operation to remove a tumour. It’s available on Youtube under This American Life: The Invisible Made Visible.

‘Everybody loses ability as they age’ he says at the end of his spoken essay…

… But how lovely those moments were, gone now except occasionally in dreams, when one could still turn to someone and promise them something truly worth their while just by saying, “Hey”.

It is in those courageous moments that we touch the lives of others, when life is discovered and lived and shared and remembered. If “Hey” is too bold a step, start with the sentiment of what was stuck recently to a pedestrian light post in the city: ‘Push this button and smile at the girl standing beside you.’

It is a reminder that the moments in which we can truly connect with someone, and not simply exist as a digital fragment in the palm of their hand, are as incidental and immediate and enlivening as the corner you are standing on.


5 thoughts on “Fragments in the shallows: digital communication and us

  1. Today I received a card in the post, handwritten, from a friend. Just to send some small thoughts as I finished the final chapter on a book that means a great deal to me for many reasons. She and I speak most days by phone. Every day by message. We are not short of communication. But that card communicates in more ways than the words it contains. It will remain with me, a small, tangible thing I can take out and look at, read again, and each time I do I will recall and feel the care with which it was chosen and sent. The friendship that prompted its sending. A concrete reminder of a moment in time.

    Communication is about being human, not digital. It is about emotion and thought, not words. They are merely the method we use to share what is felt and experienced. And without human contact, what have we to share. I agree… pick up the phone, or write that card. Or simply smile, eye to eye. It matters.

  2. Interesting reflections Daniel – thanks for them. I have just spent almost 2 hours going through my e-mail including e-mail news exchanges and as a result have passively gathered so much information ranging from the surge of armed jihadists in Mali to republicans rebranding, including a frightening story of a republican state making an example of what almost no government would look like. If I did not spend so much time reading all this perhaps I could be walking in the park with a friend.

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