Failure To Communicate—Is That Even Possible Anymore?

Sept. 21, 2010
Opinion about how electronic communications in all forms is helping and hurting human interaction.

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”

Do you remember that famous line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman? Spoken by Strother Martin playing the prison captain, it’s often quoted, yet it doesn’t apply to our society today. It seems like we spend most of our time these days involved in some form of communications. Indeed, we may be communicating too much.

We talk to each other face to face and on the phone, usually using our mobile handsets more than our landlines. We e-mail, text, and Tweet, and some of us still use the old fax machine. We log onto Facebook, watch YouTube, and chat on Skype. We listen to the radio, watch TV, search and browse the Internet, and plug into our iPods. Don’t forget about old-fashioned gatherings like school lectures, church sermons, and concerts, as well as new venues like webinars and podcasts.

Then there’s the most basic communications method of all, print publishing, such as newspapers, books, and magazines, not to mention our own personal or professional memos, reports, and proposals. Print is in decline as more and more reading is from a PC screen, e-book, or tablet. But it will never go away completely, at least in our lifetime. Overall, each average day offers a virtual blizzard of facts and trivia. We can’t enjoy life as we know it without communications. And, electronics make it all possible.

Even though we have an overwhelming number of new ways to communicate, are we really communicating, or are we just adding to the information overload? Communications means information exchange, but it also implies a certain amount of understanding. To do that, you first have to really listen. Then you have to interpolate that input with what you already know and how it fits with your agenda.

Maybe you don’t have the prerequisite knowledge to really understand what is being said. Or maybe, as it is with political discourse, you only hear what you want to hear to justify your own opinions. And in most information exchanges, you’re getting filtered material, sifted through, minimized, or eliminated, enhanced, colored, and otherwise corrupted by the writer, broadcaster, journalist, blogger, or whomever.

Is TV biased? Is Wikipedia 100% accurate? It all seems like soundbites with no depth, leaving you to wonder what the truth is anyway. What about context? Communications without the full picture can be dangerous. And it’s happening more and more, online and in traditional media like television, radio, and print journalism. 

The Internet is playing a growing role and will eventually be the core of our communications. It’s a vast resource that’s as broad as the surface of the earth, but only a fraction of an inch deep. Most of us only see it provide very shallow and even cursory coverage of everything. We’re getting more input than ever but understanding and learning less.

Some critics even contend that the Internet is making us dumber. In fact, Nicholas Carr made this argument in his recent Wired magazine article “Chaos Theory” and in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning,” he says, noting that we are hearing and seeing more but learning less. And thinking less. I see this myself but, of course, that does not necessarily diminish the value of what the Internet provides.

We’re addicted to communications. Some experts even think we may be over-communicating to our own detriment. William Powers, a former Washington Post writer, implies in his new book Hamlet’s BlackBerry that the distractions of endless frenetic connectivity can lead to loss of productivity and affect the quality of our lives. Amen to that.

We communicate, but we also fail to communicate. We certainly exchange a boatload of information in every conceivable way, but do we really listen to what is being said? Do we understand? Maybe we need an electronic product that aids understanding. Our brains are capable but maybe they need an electronic assist. How about more artificial intelligence?

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