In the last few months, I have been conducting a small experiment with myself as the test subject. In the first half of this year, my architectural design studio explored the concept of the Office of the Elsewhere Class. This group of people were studied in Dalton Conley’s book “Elsewhere USA,” and the term describes people for whom there are no separations between work and the other aspects of their lives.
This is a subject that I will probably write about extensively in the coming weeks as I continue to process the data and conclusions derived in that studio, but at this point I am going to discuss one small aspect of what I have found. At the beginning of the studio, I challenged myself to live more like the Elsewhere Intravidual. I purchased a Xoom, synced all of my accounts to it, put my music up in the cloud, loaded my pictures to Picasa, and ultimately got Google+ and this blog. In other words, I jumped feet first into the digital swimming pool. In the process, I found two things that I did not expect.
The first thing I discovered was that the addition of technology was far less intrusive into my life than I had expected, and surprisingly, made the digital aspects of my life easier to deal with. The biggest surprise was that having constant connection to e-mail made those e-mails less annoying.
Strangely, having my e-mail constantly streaming into my consciousness made it simpler to deal with. I did not expect this going in, but I found that if I was able to respond instantly to an e-mail, doing so became a quick and unobtrusive aspect of my life. I found that I was actually spending less time with e-mail when I wasn’t dealing with it in a huge block. Somehow firing off a quick response that takes only a minute to write on the fly has far less impact on my life than sitting for a long time working my way through a full inbox.
The second thing I discovered was how my communication became multi-modal. I know this is not a revelation to most people reading this, but I will make a point about it shortly. First I will describe how I’ve changed my communication methods. In the past, I used my cell phone as my primary communication tool, with e-mail following distantly behind; I didn’t text, blog, skype or post things. Now I find that I used different modes of communication depending on the content and situation.
Now I use the phone as a way to have deep conversations, but many other things that I would make a phone call to take care of, I do other ways. If I need to send a quick question to my roommate, or want to give him a message when I’m not sure if he’s in a situation where a phone ringing would be a disturbance, I text him. Similarly, if I’m on my way to meet someone somewhere, I will text that I’m leaving, rather than call. But texting is only for short communications, if there will be more than two exchanges, I’ll call.
When I need to contact more than one person, I’m resorting to e-mail, and I also use it for an extensive message that's too long for a text, but never for an urgent one. If the message is urgent, I will text, even if it is a long text. Occasionally, I will call in an urgent situation, but only if I don’t fear disturbing the person at the other end. This is very different, because a phone call used to my my primary communication in an urgent situation. If I want to see them, because they live in another city or something, I will Skype and use video chat. I use my Google+ and blog to get wider messages out, sort of like virtual lectures (I am a Professor after all.)
Now to the point of all of this, many people complain about how these new modes of communication are ruining the old ones, the art of letter writing is all but lost, we don’t talk to each other anymore, et cetera. Some of these complaints have merit when viewed in isolation, and I do believe we are more disconnected from each other today, but I think communication itself is actually getting better. The disconnections in our society cannot be blamed on electronic methods of communication.
As humans, we have always adapted our communication methods to technology. The phone greatly reduced the custom of “calling” on friends or neighbors. Rather than go to someone’s house to talk to them, you could call them on the telephone. (Which is why we term it a phone call; the term calling a friend existed long before the phone.) E-mail changed letter writing, but neither e-mail or texting or any other communication method eliminated other methods. Those other methods still exist, but are used in more narrow applications.
What is occurring is an increase in the specialization of our communication, with certain forms of communication becoming appropriate in specific situations. In a way, this diversity is actually streamlining communication, as we are eliminating the extraneous pieces that are time consuming, and therefore we increase our efficiency.
There are costs to the increased efficiency, and I’m not claiming that it is perfect, but it is another stage in the evolution of society. Every new communication method, the printing press, the telephone, pagers, e-mail, IM’s, Skype, have all been accused of ending time honored traditions, but those traditions survive, just in an altered form.