It is common, almost trite, to observe that modern life has reduced the amount of time to do many day-to-day tasks. It takes less time to communicate to another because we have instant messaging, texting, email and other near real-time communication devices. We are recipients of news of events around the world within minutes of their occurrence. With the ubiquity of quick electronic communication we can greatly enlarge the number of persons whom we contact at any one time.
We also are increasingly assisted by devices that permit and encourage multi-tasking. We can sit in a meeting listening to a speaker while we simultaneously communicate with someone far away on a different topic, read a passage on an unrelated document, or make a purchase on an e-commerce site. We can capture notes on one issue while other processors in our laptop are scanning for information on some other issue.
These facts lead to, at least in appearance, greater productivity.
Of course, there are costs to this. Sometimes we all feel that we are indeed processing more transactions of one sort or another than we accomplished formerly, but at the same time we’re losing important texture in our lives.
One of the great contributions of the humanities as a collection of fields of scholarship is the use of stories and narratives to convey complex messages effectively. Stories convey fundamental and ubiquitous features of human existence. They can effectively evoke the emotions connected to experiences, which lead to long-lasting memories and rationales for future behavior. Stories defy 140 character limits. Stories told face-to-face seem to add rich texture to our lives.
There are some old social psychological studies of communication that varied the channels of communication from written, to aural-only, to full aural and video (2-dimensional), to face-to-face (audio and 3-dimensional visual). The outcome variables were sometimes effectiveness of collaboration, accuracy of message reception, and interpersonal trust. Face-to-face interactions showed superior performance, especially in matters of emotional content and interpersonal trust building.
So, what’s the connection? One of the great gaps in society today is lack of understanding across groups who do not routinely interact with one another.
Understanding one another requires some time. Personal stories need to be exchanged. The meaning and tone of words need to be understood. The nonverbal behavior needs to be interpreted.
In that context, much electronic communication that allows all of us to “process” large numbers of transactions each day relies on rather “narrow” channels. They are limited to a small number of words or symbols. They’re fast, but they’re lean. The amount of information is often limited. With limited content, the emotional impact is restricted (or worse ambiguous). With restricted channels, interpersonal trust is difficult to build.
It seems likely that jumps in inter-group understanding needs sufficient time, exchange of personal stories, and communication of emotional states that can be really achieved only slowly and in a face-to-face setting.
If true, it feels old fashioned in 2017 to be concluding this. We actually might have to slow down, engage in extended dialogue, to achieve the interpersonal understanding that seems so rare these days. It’s pretty counterculture. But it’s actually something that we can do pretty well at Georgetown.