Sunday 12 June 2011

Demanding a response

Exploring the history of language and communication this week, my group of Year 7 students were genuinely bemused by the concept of smoke signals and carrier pigeons. While they knew what they were and understood the concept, the need to use them was seemingly inconceivable to them.

We are all aware that we now live in a society which expects – and to some extent demands – instant responses to electronic communication. Text messages, or short messages as they were originally named, first started appearing in the early 1990s and they were a logical development of the telegram which was already well past its heyday. However, while a telegram still had an inherent element of delay as it had to be delivered to, or collected by, its recipient once transmitted, texts arrive instantly on the phone secreted somewhere about your person.

Try an experiment: next time your phone beeps to herald the arrival of text, don’t press ‘View’ for ten minutes. I predict two possible outcomes. Either, you start panicking and an overwhelming sense of nervousness and uncertainty pervades your body and you give in and read it, or, you end up forgetting about it and read it a couple of hours later.

If you end up forgetting about it and there was no telephone call chasing you, the chances are it was unimportant in the first place. If, however, you gave in and read it, it is because we now have a Pavlovian response to communication and the social demands placed upon us by others. We are happy to disrupt whatever we are doing to respond immediately and flit between tasks meaning that we are ultimately working – and therefore thinking – less efficiently and less effectively.

The demanded immediacy of response has crept into society as technology has infiltrated our lives. There was, as people of a certain generation often cite, a time when people had to stick to arrangements they had made and turn up as agreed, rather than texting at the last minute to rearrange, and a time when if you telephoned someone you knew they were sitting in their hall talking on a device plugged into the wall. How it was possible for some of the greatest human achievements in the history of the world to be made without exchanging texts, instant messaging, or telephoning will forever remain shrouded in mystery.

While I know that technological developments in communication have saved people’s lives and improved situations for others, we have continued to welcome new media into our lives and find uses for them where none existed previously. Inventiveness and creativity are part of what makes us human but as we become more like the networked computers of the internet, permanently connected and switched on, are we not at risk of losing a little bit of that which made us human in the first place?

PS. If you do try the little experiment, I would love to hear how you coped and how old you are in a comment below (anonymous posts are fine if you want to keep age and name separate).


  1. Whilst this technology is remarkably useful at times, work-wise, I do find the fact that one has to be permanently on the end of a telephone, wherever one might be ('What's the point in having a mobile if you don't answer it?!', some ask) a source of great annoyance, and similarly with the immediacy of email, with the expectancy of an immediate response. One needs, and should be allowed to have without question or justification, a goodly portion of one's life without such pressures, allowing the mind space to contemplate its own desires.

    It has become increasingly difficult to conceive of a time before such technologies, but there is no doubt in my mind that the developments which have taken hold during the last fifteen years have taken hold too readily, without enough questioning by consumers, and to the detriment of humanity.

    (In answer to your research question: I, at the age of 33, tend to ignore and forget until next I look at my phone. Once I do read messages I sometimes defer any required response, although once the message disappears off the bottom of the screen (text or email) it often gets forgotten entirely, for better or for worse.)

  2. Yes, so much one could say (belatedly, slowly, reflectively ... !) about this. Despite having read about the research on the effects of this technology, I still find myself having to make concerted efforts to resist. But then perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, as we are fundamentally social beings, so if we do, we risk feeling that we might be out of touch. But whilst it plays to our human desire, it also plays to other things such as our propensity to overvalue the new and what is happening right now, even if it's trivial. It's complex stuff - which I find fascinating.