Idle Speculation

A few months ago, I think my mom must have googled me and spent some time going through my blog and website. She was reading up on my research and such, and then she sent along a couple of lengthy emails asking all sorts of questions about the future of communication technologies—questions I’m not qualified to answer, necessarily.

I told her I’d try and answer some of her questions, even though my responses would amount to little more than idle speculation. Then I thought it might be neat to simply publish her questions and my answers on the blog, and she was thrilled by the idea. So here goes…

Subject: “What do you think?”

Hi Son,

Hope that you and your family are doing well and all back at school with all the scheduling that involves. Enjoy your web/blog site and check frequently to see all the wonderful things you are doing. You know that I am so proud of you and all the hard work you have done has certainly paid off. I have a few theoretical questions for you…

Considering the almost universal usage of cell phone technology to tweet, “like” instantly send msg, pix and ideas as we have seen in the countries that have overthrown dictators, would you say that this will be the methodology for future history making/changing events? Do you think that the centuries old idea of “war” as we know it will change?

So, my mom starts off with a huge question, one that I feel woefully unprepared to answer. This is the kind of question that Clay Shirky routinely answers, and I’d consult some of his stuff for viable insights.

But just thinking through the question, I wouldn’t say that mobile technologies necessarily will be central to future “history-making/changing events.” Certainly, it seems inevitable from our current perspective, but who could have predicted 5 years ago the role that something like Twitter would play on a global scale?

So while all signs point to SMS and our current iterations of mobile communications playing a significant role in the coordination of human activity, there’s no telling what might be available to us in 5 or 10 years.

As for the notion of “war,” well, yes. I think our understanding of this construct is always in flux. Look at the role of drones in contemporary warfare, for example…

Now we have the ability to take a blood test from a sick child in Congo and send samples to laboratories in the USA or any where else. The samples are tested, the results emailed/tweeted back, best practice treatment is administered and the child is well. What do you see as the future of medical technology to help alleviate suffering utilizing this means of communication?

Again, I’m so unqualified to address this question that I hesitate to respond. One of my graduate school colleagues, Lucia Dura, is doing interesting and important work in areas like this, and one of my Ball State colleagues, Kerry Anne McGeary, is leading our new Global Health Institute in an effort to explore similar problems.

I also know that this question is related to the previous question in that SMS is increasingly used to facilitate health care decision-making in places where computing technologies are scarce, but mobile technologies are ubiquitous.

As for the political arena, now that everyone has access to modifying, altering and sending images, how will that effect the truth of what we see and believe?

There’s nothing new under the sun as far as this goes. Just differences of scale…

What do you think is the solution to cyber bullying and those who hide behind their keyboard/ texting to decimate the life of others?

This is an area where I haven’t done much thinking, but I know that folks like danah boyd are actively researching in this area, and the work that she and her colleagues are doing is helping to shape public policy…

Subject: “One more…”

Do you think that since tweeting has created a sort of new language to fit in 140 letters/symbols we will eventually evolve to a phonetic only language?

thx 4 yr insite, luv u, ma

Here’s one I can answer! I needn’t just provide my thoughts, since we know that the constraints of SMS—and by extension, Twitter—have resulted in many neologisms that have been adopted in more traditional communication genres.

The word “tweet” itself is a prime example. It’s now a verb that basically means “to broadcast a short, public message using the microblogging service Twitter.”

As for a “phonetic only language,” well, our language is already phonetic, but I think I see where she was going with that question… I think she was asking if written forms of our language will contract in some way, in order to better meet the constraints of SMS.

I’d say the answer is probably yes and no. In the short term, neologisms for shortening written forms of language will prosper. But again, we don’t know what our communications media will look like in 5 years. Even now, for example, Apple’s iMessages is pushing back against the constraints of SMS, affording text expansion within a given mobile message.

Who know’s what we’ll see in 5 years? A renaissance of epistolary communication is not out of the realm of possibility!

Subject: “Re: One more…”

Just thinking of the possibilities with these new methods of communications – visitors from another planet describing earthlings “2 feet, 2 legs, a torso topped by a head and 1 arm and an angular appendage on the other side of the torso that connects to the ear on the head. “ (cell phone user) Or –” 2 feet, 2 legs, torso, 2 arms, 1 head and talks to the air” (blue tooth user)

Medical issues – already seeing “text thumbitis” –(Will the thumb evolve to twice its present size and the other fingers shrink?), greater number of young people with major hearing issues (ear bud use with volume too high), neck cervical issues (always bent over keyboard of cell phone checking or sending text msg), major increase in stress levels and blood pressure due to the 24/7 involvement in constant communication, major increase in eye problems due to small print on text msg and/or computer social network connections, or the really tragic one “accident involving multiple cars due to driver texting while behind the wheel.” New law in CA has already been placed into effect – “no texting while driving – fine at least $350.00.”

Psychological changes – future generations unable to form deep friendships or other personal relationships. Every individual continually on blue tooth or texting while attempting to have conversations with companion, neighbor, friend, spouse etc, greater population of patients with major insecurities/depression and feeling disconnected from life due to loss of cell phone, spending time in “dead zones” etc.

Two really interesting popular audience articles come to mind when reading about changes to personal relationships. This first is Clive Thompson’s excellent, almost magisterial piece on “ambient awareness”.

The second is more recent, and explores the “Joy of Quiet”.

Both articles make compelling arguments, and both are substantially “right.” It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Future of communication? – cell phone type implants in the brain (sort of like a cochlear implant now in use for the deaf) so no actual cell phone or accessory needed? Also no battery needed as communication device powered by neuron synapses of the brain. The possibilities for future communication methods and effects on many areas of our lives are mindboggling ! Fun to speculate.

Definitely fun to speculate! Thanks for your contribution to the blog, mom, and thanks for making me think!


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