The narrowing effect of digital communication

Complexity of Communication
© violetkaipa –
In the 1980s Wright Morris said, “We’re in the world of communications more and more, though we’re in communication less and less”. Communications technology has continued to explode since then. We can call, email, text, tweet, Skype, blog, post to Facebook or Pinterest or Google+ or…, and our attention is constantly grabbed by communications from other people doing all of these things. This allows us to keep in touch quickly and easily with relatives and friends around the world. It also presents us with challenges: How do we decide where to place our attention? How can we make time for meaningful conversations and slow down enough to figure out what we really have to say?

Who Are We Talking To?

Very few people write longhand letters nowadays. Many don’t even take time for email, preferring to post thoughts on public forums where they’ll be seen by large networks of followers or friends. This is much easier and more efficient than writing individually to dozens of people when we want to share photos, news, insights, calls to action and appeals for help. It also changes the nature of what we say. Such public posting tends to reduce the amount of time we spend in dialogue, responding attentively to one person’s questions and perceptions. It may make our communication less personal: there are things that we might confide to trusted friends but don’t want to share with a larger, less well-known group of people…and, eventually, with anyone else who might be monitoring online communications.

Digital communication can have a paradoxically narrowing effect. While it helps us to connect across great geographic distances, it can enable us to communicate primarily with like-minded people. The people in my physical neighborhood don’t all agree with me or with each other about politics, religion, music, education or anything else, but I can easily find sections of the blogosphere that uniformly reinforce my convictions. Leaving this bubble requires a deliberate effort.

Breadth and Depth

william powersWilliam Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, traces the history of human communication technologies and the ways in which they shape our social life. He writes about the contrasting values of breadth and depth. Modern communication technologies bring us unprecedented breadth, which can help us to experience new perspectives and develop wide-ranging connections. If we want these connections to have depth we need to be mindful in our use of these technologies, deliberately creating some spaces in which to step back from the constant stream of information and reflect on the meaning of those communications that we value most. His own family takes ‘digital sabbaths”; on weekends they disconnect from the Internet, television etc. and take time to reflect quietly, read books, have face-to-face conversations and write letters. They return to the world of instant communication with renewed energy and focus. Other people find value in celebrating Screen-Free Week, seven days in which free time is spent in nature, in solitude or in live human interaction instead of in screen-time. The idea isn’t to condemn instant communication technologies but to help us use them intentionally.