There’s something I sometimes forget about my tech-friendly, comic-book-reading, dark-humored friends. They’re introverts. Sometimes I even forget that I’m an introvert. We all get along so easily that, when introducing one set of friends to another, I often wonder why everyone is being so quiet instead of the outrageously funny charmers I know them all to be. So here’s the thing. It takes a lot of energy to be social. It takes time, understanding, the following of many unwritten rules both universal and cultural. When talking to someone, if it’s expected in your culture that you look at them, you don’t actually look *at* their eyes, you look slightly through them. It’s like you’re looking at their brain. No, really. Try actually focusing on someone’s eyes sometime and they will become very uncomfortable. It’s like the cat that stares at you while you sleep. You’re not quite sure if they’re looking at you lovingly or waiting for you to die so they can eat your face. The point of all this is that we expend a lot of energy on connecting with each other. Energy we could be spending otherwise on great academic pursuits or building that time machine or doing some other great work of genius. But we don’t. We need each other.
Which is part of why communication technology and online communities are so amazing. You get asynchronous communication, but it’s also acceptable to wait a few days to respond to something. It’s in the medium you’re best at - I can dictate this article and then have it transcribed. You can read it, or have it read to you. We’re even delving into gestural interfaces. The technology is still a medium though, something that has to be processed and directed and managed, instead of a transparent layer between you and me. But it’s getting there. Someday very soon I will be able to vocalize that I want to contact Person X with Y message, and however they want to receive it will be how it gets to them. When they reply to me it will come in as short-form text, despite my preference for vocalizing outbound messages. Then there’s the simple matter of boundaries of when the people from this list can contact you, when messages from this other list get through, etc. The effort of adjusting to talk to someone from out of current context disappears. You’re capable of communicating with a lot less effort than ever before. This potentially changes us in a number of ways. I’m going to focus on two aspects in brief: emergence and communication skills.
Emergence is a really neat thing. It’s how individually stupid ants (or people) are able to accomplish really amazing things. And with ants, as it could also be argued with humans, there’s no *one* entity in charge. We used to think the queen ant (or the queen bee) was the mastermind of the entire operation. Now we know that they really just make the babies. There’s a really cool RadioLab episode on emergence, if you want to know more about it. Basically, the end point is that if we can communicate more clearly and quickly, we can accomplish even greater things. It’s more and more difficult to disrupt a larger system, and what is made once can be made again because the process is based in group consciousness instead of individually hoarded knowledge.
The not so neat part is that if we don’t have to learn to deal with people who are difficult, we all become a little lesser for it. Finding a way to communicate with someone who has difficulty understanding makes you a better communicator and gives them a better mind-net to which they can attach future knowledge. Toughing through it counts. Then again, if we overcome this, there will always be new obstacles to figure out. But for those who are difficult to communicate with no matter what the medium, the gap between them and everyone else will widen. And a group is only as strong as its weakest member. Those more concerned with altruism and kindness might say we need to look out for everyone. I am most concerned with efficiency and survivial, which oddly enough often coincides with looking out for the weak as well.
This ties into the big arguement about how online communication is negatively impacting the way individuals interact when meeting in meatspace, which is that we lose nonverbal communication. It seems that any concern voiced over online interaction is linked to this. So what about gestural interfaces? What about when we start assigning actual cross-platform, cross-cultural value to the movement of a hand?
Follow-up questions: will compartmentalizing to this degree affect personality fractioning? Is communication which is easiest with those of similar backgrounds/interests likely to lead to segregation along new lines?