Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Staying Connected: Text, Audio, Video? Less is More

Our daughter is spending this year in Mali, Africa. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. The small town of Douentza in which she lives in is a 14 hour bus ride from the capital city of Bamako. Yet, even in Douentza we can talk to her by cellphone and she can e-mail from the local internet cafe to give us updates. Global communication is truly amazing. But the internet connection in Douentza is not broadband and is slow most of the time. It is not fast enough, for instance, to support real-time video conferences. So until just recently we hadn't seen our daughter's smiling face in months.

Last week, she went to Bamako on business. A colleague of our daughter who lives there has a high speed connection in her apartment and we were able to have a wonderful video conversation using Skype. Being able to see her while we talked gave us a much better feeling of how she was doing. Every parent knows the signs of stress in their kids and we could see that she was really doing quite well. The video added a special dimension to our regular phone conversations. With Skype on both ends, the whole conversation was free. When I stop and think about this even for a moment, it is amazing. I can talk to someone half a world away in real-time video at virtually no cost. The internet has changed our lives in so many ways we could not even imagine 15 years ago.

Video phones are a sci-fi novelty idea that has been around since I was a kid. I can remember seeing prototypes demonstrated on television that showed the Modern Family of the Future sitting at their video phones and talking like they were in the same room. AT&T actually tried to commercialize video phone service in several major cities in the 1970's but the costs were so high that the business was a flop. The equipment had limited capability, the network was expensive and proprietary, and the bandwidth for transmission was extremely limited. This was still a very primitive communication technology era. It would take another 25 years, low-cost, powerful microprocessors, and the world wide web to make the impractical possible.

The idea of being able to remotely see someone while talking to them is something that seems to have always caught the imagination. Wikipedia has an image of a picture phone that dates from 1910. With the advent of television, the video phone seemed to be just around the corner. Today, many cellphones are enabled for video conversations. The average laptop or desktop computer comes with a small video camera that allows web-based video conversations to take place easily. So why aren't video calls more popular? Why isn't everyone checking in via a video link with friends, family, and business colleagues?

But as we all know, it is not video that has become the ubiquitous mode of communication, it is text messaging. Every day while driving I will see some other driver who is busily punching out a message while keeping just half an eye on the road. Somehow, the need to text even while doing something that could get you killed has become a compelling need for so many. Why do people feel so compelled to be linked at every moment? Why not just talk rather than text? After all, texting requires you to type on a teeny-weeny keypad and use a shorthand language of abbreviations and emoticons. But in some ways, this seems to make texting more attractive rather than less.

The biggest advantages of texting is that it (1) doesn't require the other person to be available at the moment and (2) you can be available for connection anytime, anywhere via your cellphone. It is basically a stripped down e-mail system that works because people carry their "computer" (read: cell phone) with them and always have it on. Texting frees you up from having to answer the phone when you are busy or don't feel like talking. Texting allows you to be one step removed from the audible cues you can hear in someone's voice which can at times be a good thing. Texting allows you to stay in touch in places where talking is annoying or prohibited. You can even write some things that you might not be willing to say out loud.

Whole new paradigms have sprung up that are based on our ability to send small messages to not just a single person but a whole world that might be reading. Twitter is the most notable of these. Twitter turned out to be one of the principle means of getting the news out in rapidly-unfolding events (like the Mumbai massacre) that otherwise would be unavailable to us. Much of the power of what has been dubbed Web 2.0, or social networking, is built on small text messages that connect us billions of times a second.

So often, it turns out that less is more. Given the option of full-blown real-time video communication, we choose instead to chat asynchronously via small cryptic strings of text and emoticons. Somehow, despite the limitations of the medium, we can make ourselves perfectly clear. We need to stay connected to each other but that doesn't mean that we want to be in a face-to-face conversation, even with our best friends. Texting and Twittering. We love to connect. We love the immediacy. But we also love the sense of being able to control when we talk and when we listen. Technology allows us to connect and it allows us to maintain a certain distance. We struggle with the balance point and we probably always will.

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