The near and far of modern communications

Do me a favor. Take a look at the recent calls, incoming and outgoing, on your phone. Look down over the last 10 or 15 and note what you see. Where are these people located? Are they across town, across the state, the country, the world?

Now think about your instant messages, whether on Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, or any other social media application. Not just your likes and views, or your posts with no one particular in mind. But something you wrote or recorded for someone (or some few) in particular. These people you’ve reached out to: Where would I find them?

Now think about the great promise of the telephone and the Internet, combined into that thin, reflective rectangle in your purse, pocket, or hand as we speak. The magnificent promise of this thing we call a smartphone – and the Internet at large – is instantaneous communication with a wide swath of our fellow human beings from virtually anywhere on earth. The promise isn’t new to the Internet. A century ago, when chatting in person or posting a letter were the alternatives, it was the promise of the telephone to “project” yourself “into the presence” of loved ones and strangers near and far (John, Network Nation, 283).

The potential of telecommunications — this great tangle of gadgets, satellites, buried lines — is to connect us across ever greater distances. But as callers, texters, and media messengers, is it a potential we actually put into practice?

I’ve been reading through a wonderful history of the telegraph and telephone in their eras of popularization, a book published in 2010 called Network Nation. In it, author Richard John turns to Chicago as a case study of how the telephone expanded beyond the reach of business elites  into the homes and hands of the average resident.

Yet while Bell Telephone Company was investing in long-distance lines, connecting New York to Chicago (1893), or closer-by, Chicago to St. Louis (1915), a survey of Bell’s own Chicago customers found that only 3 percent had any interest in calling outside of the Windy City. Indeed, the average phone call in Chicago in 1900 was just 3.4 miles. In other words, though calls from Lincoln Park could reach Manhattan by 1893, most of them went no further than the Loop.

Well, you might say, long-distance was expensive back then. And you’d be right. Let’s return to the present, the post-10-10-220 world.

Turn back to your recent communications through the gadget in your hands, on your lap, or your desktop. How may conversations have you had with – and how many messages have you delivered to – people in another city? In another state? Another region? Across the world?

If you found that you’re regularly chatting with people outside of town, of state, of the country, congratulations! You’ve realized the contemporary promise of telecommunications to alter how we make and maintain contact with fellow human beings.

But before we celebrate the advent of a new era, think back to your recent calls, texts, and social media messages. The second part of the equation is about the who, rather than the how far.

How many different people are in your recent calls? How many of your recent contacts are loved ones and close friends, and how many are just acquaintances? Is there anyone you’ve been sharing voice, text, or images with recently that you’ve never met in person? Have you spent a deal of time recently on the phone or in text with a person you barely know? Any exchanges with a Facebook friend across the world you reached out to, just to learn what life is like on the other side?

If you are like me, most of what you send out and receive by phone and Facebook stays within  a small circle of people you know well. They are family, close friends, or people you work with. If you don’t see them regularly, then at one point, you did, or expect to again soon.

And here is the great irony of the potential of modern telecommunications in relation to how we practice communication. While it’s possible to spend time jabbering with a random Joe or Jane you reached out to in the tip of Alaska, or with a new acquaintance you shared a table with at a coffee shop last week, chances are, you don’t. Your cellphone address book, like your Facebook friends list, is filled with all sorts of varied contacts who might change the course of your day, of your life. And yet, you could get by with the folks on your “favorites” list. Your pen pal in Timbuktu is only a few clicks away – no postage required – and yet we tend to post on Facebook to the people we already know.

What does it mean that we use technologies of great capacity to do pretty much the same thing we always have? Is it an inability to manage the tools? A lack of imagination? Not enough time in the day?

Perhaps a bit of each.

But I would suggest that our willingness to maintain old habits in the face of new and great capacities reflects our orientation towards values and needs which are tangential to the latest technology. Those communications which reflect what we require the most – a late-night call with a loved one before bed, a photo shared with our neighbor next door, a text to a friend who still lives where we once did – are more timeless than the next iPhone upgrade, more compelling than participation in a network of a million strangers.

If that’s the case, then those strangers on Attu Island, on the shores of the Niger, or at the cafe on the corner, will have to wait and wonder while we call our buddies and grandkids back a fourth time today. Or, if they are like us, they’ll be too busy doing the same thing to give us any mind.

Field Notes: Herbert’s Bikes

A low-income Vietnam vet revels in the good life, projected through a smartphone screen.

Yesterday, at the bicycle shop where I volunteer, I met a man named Herbert. Our interaction involved a mechanism typical to modern communication: Looking together at the screen of a smartphone. Herbert’s impulse to pull out his smartphone, and his acumen in using it, interested me as a media ethnographer.

Continue reading “Field Notes: Herbert’s Bikes”

Under Construction

Thanks for checking in. I’m currently building this site. Unlike society, knowledge, and Northwestern’s campus, my site will not be under construction forever.