Conversation in the time of digital communication

According to a recent New York Times article, “more than half a million college students now use wireless devices to register class attendance and take quizzes.” Not only has digital communication gone wireless and mobile; it now dictates our ability to participate in the public domain.

In the beginning there was e-mail, of course. That technological touchstone quickly morphed into instant messaging. Online chat rooms eventually gave way to My Space and Facebook. Nowadays, virtually every online publication accepts open comments from anonymous readers, which has further served to alter the course of our electronic discourse (it’s become blatantly more coarse, of course).

When I was a kid, every boy’s dream was to have a walkie-talkie. You could converse with a friend wirelessly within a reasonably close proximity—something much better than tin-can telephones on a string. Walkie-talkies morphed into cell phones, which eventually allowed the user to capture and send digital photographs and text messages. Nowadays such devices permit limitless access to online services—we surf the web, check our e-mail, capture digitalized documents, listen to radio broadcasts, and even view TV programs, as well as keep up the chatter with our colleagues and friends.

Hand-held devices have evolved into thinner, more compact units, capable of ever-increasing data storage. Two years ago, when I replaced my Nokia cell phone with a more modern (and instantly out-of-date) Motorola, I elected not to purchase the higher end model with a built-in camera. Meantime, my colleagues send instant messages from their BlackBerries, Droids and iPhones.

Apps are the latest big thing, of course. Download them for free at the iTunes or Windows store online, or pay for the more sophisticated versions. Another New York Times article highlights a “fistful of iPhone apps that will save you time, make your life easier and make you smile.”

More and more, it seems that we spend less and less time interacting with our fellow human beings face to face, in the flesh.

Recently, I awoke with the thought that what we really need in the next generation of digital communication is the I-Thou Phone (marketed as the ithouPhone)—a device that would allow two people to speak together face to face at table over coffee in a quiet parlor, far from the madding crowd.

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2 comments on “Conversation in the time of digital communication

  1. Touch2Touch says:

    The I-Thou Phone: an idea whose time has come, and gone, and come again? Let us hope so!
    At least the technology is always possible.

  2. DJE says:

    I still don’t have a cell phone, and marvel that as I walk across the Williams campus on my way to work, most of the students have one plastered to their ear, neck in torti collis position. It’s very strange how connected everyone is — a vast net, like a spider’s web connects millions, perhaps billions on this blue dot. Yet, who is there to really listen when one needs that?

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