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Communication: Is it the Message or the Medium?

I came across a cartoon recently that showed a group of participants in an “interpersonal communications” seminar. They were on a break outside the classroom and they all had their noses buried in digital devices ranging from smartphones to smart tables to laptops, etc.

The “joke” in the cartoon was the irony that during a break from a seminar in “interpersonal” communication, participants chose to communicate via impersonal devices rather than face-to-face with fellow classmates.

This gave me a chuckle, but got me thinking about how our modern communication “devices” have gradually begun to replace good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Really, not so gradually when considering the scale of history; it’s really only within the past 150 years or so that communication went from person-to-person (talking) to print (newspaper) to wire (telegraph) to lines (telephone) to airwaves (radio, TV) to wireless (smart devices) to, whatever is coming soon to a store near you. This is a mere blip on the historical scale.

I read that one of the major tech companies is developing a wrist watch that will replace the smartphones! It baffles the mind to think that the ancient “green machine” that literally filled an entire city block has now been reduced to the size of a wrist watch, all within the turn of a century.

I’m sure many Week-Ender readers have witnessed the scene in a crowded public space where a significant number of people are focused on their devices; and it’s not just the “younger” generation. I see just as many older people tapping away at smartphones. 

My older sister was visiting me recently and found that her phone did not get coverage from our home so we switched her to the same provider we have, which has much better coverage.  At the same time she decided to make the jump from “dumb” technology to “smart.”

As all older-generation, new-smartphone users do, she entered that period of confusion as she tried to figure out the *%#@!!** device. But as she began to learn what can be done with it, she started to get into the “nose-in-the-phone” mode.

So even people of her generation, the “Mature/Silents” generation, can become immersed in this constant search for more information, more impersonal communication.

For the first time in history, there are six distinct generations alive at the same time, each with distinctive characteristics. These have been identified as: the GI Generation, born between 1901-1926, a.k.a. The Greatest Generation; Mature/Silents, 1927-1945; Baby Boomers, 1946-1964; Generation X, 1965-1980; Generation Y/Millennium, 1981-2000; Generation Z/Boomlets, born after 2001.

I have found myself doing it when I am in a waiting situation, where I have some time on my hands in a public place – like an airport or doctor’s office. After a couple minutes of staring at the wall and trying not to stare at people, I pull out my smartphone and act like I am busy with something important.

Sometimes I actually am. I may be researching an upcoming article or looking up something pertinent to my life. But mostly I am just trying to look like I’m busy.

So instead of striking up a conversation with the person nearest me, maybe learning something about them or saying something to them that could change their life – I choose to isolate myself within the digital isolation chamber, i.e., a mobile device.

It is a choice for me because I grew up in a world where telephones were mostly on “party lines” and high speed mail delivery was a rural mailman in a fast car. I know that person-to-person communication is important. For most of our current younger generations, that is ancient history, rarely experienced and not very interesting.

For that reason I think many of the younger people who grew up in the digital age – especially the Generation Z/Boomlets – have lost the ability to engage in small talk.  If put into a crowded room, many of them will retreat into to their digital devices.

I’m not sure if this is good, bad or just another phase of human evolution. But it strikes me that something is lost in the cyber-world we live in.

I think I will endeavor to phase out of cyberspace and act more like my wife. She is a southern girl – a GRIT, Girl Raised In The South – and she can strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger and have their entire life’s history in five minutes. It amazes me.

But I’ve also seen her engaging way change a person's day and in some cases their lives for the better. 

So I think I will try to start a conversation with at least one stranger a day, or, I don’t know, maybe five per week, something like that. Even if it’s just to say, hey, how are you doing today?” Maybe I’ll even try to pry a nose or two from digital devices and see if I can pull them back from the void.

It may not change anybody’s life, but at the very least it will change mine and I will exercise my interpersonal communication skills.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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