The Communication Issue
FEATURE | Has technology killed the conversation?

Has technology
killed the conversation?

Technology has revolutionized communication for every generation. But is there a cost?



By Jenny Jedeikin

A majority of Americans are communicating online—a staggering 79 percent of us, and it’s revolutionizing the way we converse. It’s also no longer just the teens and the millennial generation who are communicating online. The latest studies show that females over 50 are the fastest growing crowd to exchange information via the Web. But what does all this electronic chatter mean? The experts have differing opinions, but one thing they agree on: The Internet isn’t going anywhere, so we all better get used to it.

The average Facebook user has 229 Facebook friends.
The Communication Issue
FEATURE | Has technology killed the conversation?
The number of those using social networking sites has nearly doubled since 2008 and the population of users has gotten older.

When SMS text messaging began, growth was slow, with customers in 1995 sending on average only 0.4 messages per customer per month.


Then and now

The speed at which news travels today affects many aspects of our lives. In 1858, for instance, before the advent of the Pony Express, it would take a piece of mail an average of 30 days to be delivered from the East Coast to California. For someone who had moved out West—away from their family of origin—that meant they might not hear about a serious illness of a loved one until the person had already passed away. Today, not only do you find out instantly if your relative has an illness, but if you post the news on a social network, you might also get support from dozens of your "friends," who are ready to offer recommendations for doctors, unorthodox treatment plans or first-hand testimonials about what to expect with the illness.

Despite the marked contrast in how we communicate, Ronald Rice, communication professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the invention of the telegraph had a more profound affect than the Internet. "Before the telegraph was invented, the fastest mode of communication was whatever thing could travel the fastest, so it would be something on a horse or a ship," explains Rice. "With the telegram, suddenly we had instant communication. That’s not just an evolution; that’s a transformation."


With the advent of the Internet, the notable change, Rice explains, is that for the first time we have access to people all over the world who we would not normally meet. "The usual bonds that constrain our communication have been removed," says Rice. "Now you can pretty much communicate with anybody around the world at any time. It’s a global village. That’s a radical departure."

What does it mean? "We’re no longer constrained by one set of norms or cultural customs," says Rice who compares today to medieval times, before cities or markets had developed, when the only people or ideas you would come across were those in your local town, which was controlled by the military. "As communication develops, people have access to a wider range of ideas."


The Communication Issue
FEATURE | Has technology killed the conversation?
Communicating by email is not as popular with teens; only 73 percent of teens use email, making them the generation least likely to do so. When teens do use email, they tend to use it more in formal situations or when communicating with adults than to communicate with friends.

Social consequences

In his book Social Consequences of Internet Use, Rice argues that the social implications of the Internet are neither good nor bad, but a little of both. "The Internet allows us to be more of who we already are, and that can be good or bad, depending on the person," he says.

Rice’s studies have shown, however, "that people who use the Internet tend to be a little more involved in their community, and they also tend to be in contact with more people and a wider range of individuals." That can certainly be beneficial when it comes to bringing people together who are spread out over wide distances. Today, housebound grandparents can use programs like Skype to interact with their grandchildren, and a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq can be comforted by his parents like never before.

While no one can argue the fact that the Internet makes possible myriad connections between people, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has a different take. She sees the online world adversely affecting who we "become." In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the amount of time spent socializing online means children and teens grow up without acquiring profound skills to learn how to handle "being alone" or to be genuinely intimate.

Turkle is quick to point out that while teenagers have always spent a lot of time talking to their friends on the phone, there’s a big difference between the way older generations grew up and how teens do it today. "The image of a teenage girl in the ’60s spending two hours on a princess phone pouring her heart out to a friend leaves her with a certain intimacy," says Turkle. "But two hours of following a group of ‘the friended,’ taking in their photos, what parties they have gone to, their likes and dislikes, does not leave her 21st century counterpart with the same advantages. She is not learning skills of negotiating intimacy and commitment."


Generations online

While most people do go online, if you’re under 34, there’s a much bigger likelihood you go online than your grandparents. Here’s how the percentage of Internet users breaks down by generation:


95% Millenials (ages 18-33)

Gen X (ages 34-45) 86%

81% Younger Boomers (ages 46-55)

Older Boomers (ages 56-64) 76%

58% Silent Generation (ages 65-73)

GI Generation (+74) 30%





The Communication Issue
FEATURE | Has technology killed the conversation?

“We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author

Turkle believes that we are going to turn out a generation that can’t recognize that they have a feeling unless they’re able to share it online or in a text. In her studies, Turkle has found that people, not just teenagers, would rather text or send an email than pick up the phone. "We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy," she says. "Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."

New technologies, old fears

Rice counters that fears such as Turkle’s are nothing new. "Throughout the ages people have always been fearful of new mediums," he explains. "When postcards first came out, they were reviled by many people who were concerned that they were going to destroy the fabric of culture because now you had images that could be distributed cheaply and broadly to everybody. Comic books were the voice of Satan," and Rice adds, "People didn’t like telephones because now any ordinary person could call you."

Communication breakthroughs

It’s easy to forget that it’s only been a few hundred years since we started reading books. Here is a list of major communication breakthroughs in modern history.

The Communication Issue
FEATURE | Has technology killed the conversation?

So what’s the next communication medium we have to get ready for? "The next step," says Rice, "would be brain implants which are built into your body and allow you to communicate with others without using anything." And that, says Rice, is already a possibility.

Since the advent of speech thousands of years ago, human communication has always evolved and will continue to do so in the future. "It doesn’t matter what people think," says Rice, "if it’s a valuable medium, most people are going to use it."

Jenny Jedeikin lives in Northern California and her writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Rolling Stone and In Style, among other publications.

“Before the telegraph was invented, the fastest mode of communication was whatever thing could travel the fastest….
With the telegram, suddenly we had instant communication.
That’s not just an evolution; that’s a transformation.”

Ronald Rice, communication professor at
University of California, Santa Barbara and author

The Communication Issue
Has technology killed the conversation?


The “problems” attributed to the Internet generation have nothing to due with technology advances. Such concerns are in fact why the “Great” generation called their children the Silents in a cover 1951 Time magazine article – as the “Silent” generation were / are so concerned about being politically correct they would no longer date but in groups of 4 to 8 and would not sign petitions or voice objections. Then, Robert Putnum ploted the same trends this article attributes directly to the Internet in “Bowling Alone” (referring to bowling beomg more popular but bowling leagues being less popular) over the past TWO generations. Moreover, studies show the additional stimulation from time online is the primary driver behind a steady increase in IQs. So, it’s simply the cookie cut homes, HOAs, and spralling malls of ubanization (moving from rural communities to cites) that’s causing people to feel lonely yet fearful of intimacy. Social networking technology is instead the best solution and not a core problem or even a symptom (see Fogel’s the Fourth Great Awakening).

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PHOENIX FOCUS | October 2011 | The Communication Issue


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