There’s no denying that communication has rapidly changed in the last thirty years. But are we humans keeping up with technology that we are creating? Social media platforms give us many new contexts in which to create and consume communication. How has the way we talk and behave changed since the invention of the internet? In Episode 17 I talk to Dr Yin Yin Lu, self-proclaimed ‘rhetoric doctor’, about talking in the 21st century. Is it time for a communication revolution?
How we talk, socialise and behave is shifting. We are communicating more rapidly than ever before in human history. Our devices quantify how much communication we are missing. Those little counts of unread notifications pop up to remind us that the conversation is flowing with or without us. We’ve invented terms like FOMO to describe the feeling of missing out when we are not plugged into our feeds.
The ‘feed’ is a good metaphor for how we consume communication on our devices. Yin likens Instagram to a sugar high, where everything is perfect and beautiful as we scroll through our feed. We feel great, energised. However, we can feel deflated and even depressed when confronted with our unfiltered, imperfect reality off the screen.
Everything about communication has got faster and faster in the last thirty years. It is, Yin says, like a ‘Tesla in ludicrous mode’ and there is still potential for greater speed to come.
So what is this doing to our brains, since humans evolve pretty slowly compared to all this new technology? The super fast communication that confronts us every day can trigger fight or flight responses. It can even shut down our more nuanced, empathetic responses. The new communicative contexts and expectations come with new challenges for our brains.
Algorithms vs humans?
It’s not just social media that is changing how we communicate. We are now used to having automated filters on our emails, classifying what counts as spam for example. We are arguably comfortable with automatic translations of tweets, and see Google Translate as a useful tool in addition to dictionaries. (See previous episode with Charlotte Ryland.) But have you heard about GPT-3? Would you be comfortable handing over your personal language choices to an algorithm?
Where does the technology stop before it takes over human creativity and word play? It’s a really interesting question.
There is plenty of work on ‘text speak’ and how language is changing as technology evolves. David Crystal talks about this on a previous episode. What is perhaps less well documented is not the divide in vocabulary between younger and older generations. Tech design is more intuitive to the younger generations, the digital natives. To older people, smart phones are less intuitive. This isn’t necessarily bad. However, it does mean that the regulators (the adults) may not understand the implications of communication across new tech. It’s a whole new design dialect, Yin argues. It is complex, multifaceted, and we need communication science to become a key subject in order to understand the changing face of human communication.
We are wandering into uncharted communicative territory without a map, or a guide. We cannot say that social media is categorically good or bad for our mental health. We can, however, be wary of teaching our children to shout a female name and expect an immediate response (Alexa, play The Beatles!) What ramifications does this have for future female equality? Education, law and human biology have a lot of catching up to do with technology. Sexism is currently being coded into our technological devices.
There is joy and creativity in new communicative contexts. TikTok allows us to remix videos, music and text. Theatre is embracing the new online space, as you can see in previous guest Ben Crystal’s latest work with his Shakespeare Ensemble. There is hope. But without awareness of the education gap that is widening with every new development, we could soon find ourselves lost. We need to think about communication science, and quickly.