Communication technology is one of four types of technology that impact our lives in profound ways — shaping how we interact with our world and other people near and far. To improve our lives we need to learn and understand communication technology so we have some measure of control over it instead of it over us, and so we can choose appropriately when balancing its positive and negative characteristics.
In general, communication can be classified into four different types: human-to-human, human-to-machine, machine-to-human, and machine-to-machine. So, when using communication technology, one of the first things to know is what we are communicating with – a human or a machine.
Sometimes is very obvious when we communicate with a machine. Programming a microwave oven is a great example of this. If you know what you are doing it is easy, and a microwave oven can be an amazing kitchen machine used to prepare foods. But if you don’t know how to communicate with a microwave it can be a confusing nightmare. Microwaves are machines and are typically very logical – this is what makes them predictable and reliable to use over and over again. But it can also make communicating with a machine painfully frustrating if you don’t know their “logic.” Now that machines are taking on a more human-like façade, the skills needed to communicate with a machine are changing, and logic may become less of a prerequisite. For example, many machines can understand voice commands, so no matter how logical we think we are talking to the machine it may not have any idea what we are saying. Having patience with the machine you need to communicate with, and knowing its language, just like having patience and knowledge when communicating to people, is a valuable asset. Another asset is being aware that machines can “listen” to what you are saying when you are not talking directly to them. I’ve noticed many times that my phone seems to be listening in on my conversations, and later offering suggestions about questions or topics that I have discussed.
More often than not, when technology is involved, we are communicating with a machine even when it feels like we are communicating with another person. This fact can be subtle or very obvious but nonetheless is important to realize. For example, when talking to someone on the telephone, we are communicating with a machine first (the phone), which in turn is communicating with other machines (cell phone towers and switches and eventually the other person’s phone), which is finally communicating to the other person. Usually it’s not noticeable, but becomes very apparent when your call is dropped, has an annoying echo, or suffers from some other technological issue. What an absolutely amazing, positive thing a telephone conversation can be when you realize that you can speak with someone far, far away as if they are sitting next to you in the same room. But when those machines break down, or the unexpected occurs, telephone conversations can be unreliable and disappointing. Taking telephone conversations for granted can be a mistake, especially when emergencies come up.
A hand-written, or typed letter mailed to another person also gets passed along and handled by machines (like a mail sorting machine) as well as other humans (like a letter carrier) but does not suffer from problems like echoes, drops or bad coverage. And handwritten words may convey some emotion even better than spoken words. While hearing another person’s voice on the phone is immediate and direct, written words have a delayed aspect to them that may enhance the message.
Using a similar argument, when watching a person on television we are not watching a person at all but rather a machine that shows an image of a person. There a many machines involved along the communication channel (like cables, or satellites, satellite dishes and antennas) that string together the two people involved and this can create images that are nearly magical. I remember sitting in my elementary school gymnasium watching the first moon landing and moon walks. Currently we may be captivated by live sports coverage from people playing a game halfway around the globe. In some ways it is just like having that person right there in the same room, but in other ways it is very removed and remote. We have the power to simply turn “off” the person on the TV, but that is not the case with another person in the same room. So, a positive aspect of television is that it conveys the comfort of being with another person, but in other ways it is very passive.
Internet communication technology brings new and more complex means of sending and receiving messages, especially as more and more internet devices crowd into our lives. Email and texting is a perfect example of human-to-machine communication in which a simple mistake like a “Reply-All” operation may become embarrassing at the least, or one of the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made at the worst. Anonymously leaving a gift on someone’s porch may be a live streaming video event if there are surveillance cameras involved, with the homeowner monitoring their front door while they are at work or away on vacation. Ding, dong, ditch may become a game of the past! In this case there are machines communicating with other machines to constantly monitor what is happening. With the addition of facial recognition you may be identified the minute you walk into a store, or onto someone’s front lawn.
This same analysis can be applied to any communication technology we choose – there are positive and negative aspects for each. Remembering that while we use and select technology for communicating to other people is always important for having control and satisfaction in getting our messages across.
Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology — including production, transportation, energy, and communication — for over 30 years. He enjoys trying to better understand technology and its past, present and future while also attempting journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]