Saturday, May 6, 2017

The End of Communications


I am wondering whether most folks have the same kinds of experiences with “communications” as we are.

1.       I am fairly certain we are not unique regarding postal mail. We now receive a few bills, the odd renewal notice, maybe a magazine, and quite a few commercial pieces. Oh, and lest I forget, we are among the few left on the planet who receive actual Netflix DVDs in the mail.  I know, I know, but we are old, so just chill. Note the complete absence of personal mail.  I am not sure when personal mail stopped, but it has now become a thing of comment. “You received an actual personal letter . . . in the mail? Wow” But that is rare, even for us.

2.       Now, on to the telephone. Remember the telephone?  When I was little, we actually had a “party line” . . . remember those? Yeah, 4-5 other people, not resident in your home, also occupied your telephone line. So, if you picked up the phone to make a call, someone else might be chatting away, and you were expected to hang up . . . after listening discreetly for interesting tidbits of course. Then gradually we enjoyed a private line, all to ourselves.  But folks actually talked to one another on the telephone, especially folks who might not reside in your town—relatives or friends.  I imagine that we would make or receive a dozen or so calls each day.  If you wanted to communicate with someone and it was more urgent than a 2-3 day postal service, you used the telephone. Now, oddly, we still have a telephone, several actually. But now, we virtually never receive an actual personal telephone call.  I am guessing that we receive maybe 1 or 2 personal calls per month on our “landline” service.  That’s generally from people who are as old as we are and don’t understand that we have cellular phones.  Oh, we still get a few calls every day, perhaps 5 or 6. But they are always from someone who wants money from us. So, our landline telephone has virtually ceased being a useful communications device.

3.      Then there is that cellular thingie. Everyone has at least one cell (now known as “smart”) phone.  And they were really hot stuff when they first came out.  I originally had what was called a “bag-phone”.  Remember them? They came out in the 1980s sometime, and you could actually take it in your car, so as to be totally distracted by an in-motion phone call.

Gradually, the bag phone gave way to just a cellular phone, which then proceeded to shrink in size (aren’t we clever?) as the engineers discovered how to miniaturize the electronics.  And we then used these devices to communicate with one another.  For a while, these cell phones battled with landline phones for primacy. The cell phones were used “on the road”, that is, when we were away from our landlines.  Then little by little, the cell phone became the main telephone. But throughout this phase, real people still largely communicated by one or the other of these communications devices.

4.       Then, also during the mid 1980s, that personal computer came on the market. I still remember my first in 1985—an IBM PCXT with a 10 megabyte hard drive. Wow, what ever would you do with that amount of storage? And a firm called Compuserve offered a communications service – CIS-- that allowed chat forums and a form of e-mail.  Slowly, but surely, that e-mail approach, using PCs, began to dominate our communications. We still used telephones, both landlines and cell phones, but it seemed clear that this e-mail type of communication would begin to dominate.  Slowly, most folks began acquiring PCs and began using some form of e-mail for personal communication.  And the telephone became last year’s device, which is a phone in which you actually spoke with a real person using this device known as a phone.  People communicated by e-mail.  Now, we still receive personal calls on our cell phones. But out of perhaps 10 calls per day, maybe 3-4 are personal, i.e., calls from a colleague, friend or relative. The remaining are now from people who want to sell you something, or want you to give them money. These latter have become so frequent that I have now stopped answering any call on either our landline or our cell phone unless the call is identified by a person’s name and that name is known to us. Otherwise, we let the call go until it stops. And it almost always stops short of our voicemail service.  This has become so frequent and so annoying that I now check each call with a “reverse lookup” service. I type in the number and the service tells me whether it is a real person’s phone, or it is a “scam” or marketing caller. When I discover that is what it is, I then use an app in my phone to block all calls from that number. I now have perhaps 75 blocked numbers on my phone.  And that e-mail replacement system? Well, I still receive between 75 and 100 e-mails per day. But I think I receive 1 or 2 personal e-mails per week, that is, e-mails from real people I know as friends or relatives.  All of the rest of my e-mails are either news outlets (the New York Times, or the Manchester Guardian, for example) or commercial messages.  So, however useful is e-mail, it no longer serves as a personal communications system among friends and family.

5.       So, as my telephone and my e-mail slowly fade away as communications devices, and they are fading away, what is taking their place? Well, apparently social media is replacing the phone and e-mail.  Now, the phone may still be used for that purpose because cell phones are now just tiny personal computers, but it is no longer an actual person-to-person communication. Oh, I should note that a thing called “texting”, or “messaging” is one of those media, but texting is not a broadcast medium, but rather a personal communications approach.  To Text, or Message, one types a message into a keyboard on the “smart phone” and sends that message to one or more real people.  It’s a sort of personal teletype system. I guess texting is still personal, but no voices are involved.  Still, it’s faster than the US postal Service can manage.

6.       But other forms of “communication” are also operating, Facebook, SnapChat, Linkdin, and a dozen or so other similar group forums allow one to send messages to our “friends”, i.e., people we know who are listed as ok to receive our messages.  But these forums are increasingly confused by both commercial messages, and by newsie messages—indeed social media is now one of the dominant forums by which people receive actual (and also fake) news.  And as more people use these social media systems, fewer people use the telephone for either actual voice calls, or even texting/messaging.  So, even though our list of “friends” has grown substantially, the number of actual in-person communications has shrunk dramatically. I note also that these various social media systems are also self-segregating by age I think. Our kids still sometimes use Facebook for example, but our grandkids rarely. They use other forums.

7.       So, I now find myself wondering how/whether we will continue to communicate with one another. Maybe personal communication is a thing of a past generation. We may remember fondly those days when we used to actually talk with one another, but it may pass from memory, as the use of actual letters has passed.

8.       So what comes next? If we stop talking with one another, will conflict cease, or is it likely to increase?  I think perhaps the latter. I see our nation and perhaps all nations, as slowly fracturing along lines created by big business, big money, and big religion. I see racism increasing, rather than disappearing. I see groups now beginning to act with violence toward other groups. And, without actual communication among and between the groups and the individuals, I see no way to reduce the disparities.

9.       Maybe we need to move away from corporate sponsored communications and return somehow to personal systems. And if you figure out how to do that, you may well replace Apple, et al as the future owners of the universe.
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