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What’ve got here is a failure to communicate

I’m seeing a recurrent pattern.

Usually it shows up in my E-mail in-box. At some point I will start to see a collection of E-mails with a common subject line going back and forth on some non-life threatening issue. If I open (reluctantly) one of the E-mails I will see that the reason for the flurry is not the result of the importance of the issue identified in the subject line. Usually, it’s the result of a recipient’s misunderstanding the motives of the person sending the initial email. Or perhaps the initial sender misunderstood the motives of someone else and that prompted the initial email. So, what’s the problem here? Claude Shannon, the leading mind in the realm of ‘information theory,’ would analyze most of these email exchanges and simply conclude the problem is one of low signal-to-noise ratio.

Okay, maybe so. But let’s look at some more communications.

After I’m finished looking at my E-mail in-box I look at my news aggregator, which summarizes the goings-on at a hundred or so weblogs that I like to check in on. I don’t really see ‘flurries’ here because this is a different communication environment. But I do see heated Internet discussions, which seem to be fueled by each participant’s desire to be perceived as ‘correct.’ Again, Mr. Shannon might assess the problem in terms of the S/N ratio. To me the problem is caused something else. Rarely, in these low S/N communications is there an effort to understand where the other person is coming from. That’s the problem.

It’s kind of ironic that we live in a world replete with the most powerful tools for communicating. You can walk down any street and see people with cellphones engaged in penetrating discussions. Coffeeshops now have free wireless Internet access and people flock there and type furiously, no doubt communicating with people in distant points around the entire globe. And, speaking of the water planet, you can’t help but notice that our globe is surrounded by satellites that keep our communications grid operational 24/7/365.

But still we have communications problems. How can our technology help us improve our communications?

Well, obviously it can’t. Technology can only create systems that allow people in different locations to carry out conversations. It can’t make the conversations more meaningful, or more civil. Ironically, I think our use of technology is actually inhibiting meanful communication. We are getting confused and coming to believe that the act of communicating with people who are not in the same room with us is, in and of itself, meaningful communication. And we seem to believe that the farther away the other person is, or the faster we respond to their missive, the more effective the communication.

It’s easy to sit in you little pod and spew out opinions via email, cellphone, instant messaging, or even by fax. What’s harder is to get a real sense of what another human being is feeling and thinking, and why they are experiencing a certain viewpoint. Technology can’t help us with that problem. Which is too bad, because it’s becoming a bigger problem as more people find more ways to communicate more rapidly than ever before across greater distances.

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