Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Age of Communication

My last two posts were more philosophy and less economics. How about a third one? Let’s call this one the irony of the age of communication.

Can one doubt that we are living in a new era based on communication? It sounds modern, doesn’t it? Think about it. We have Alexa in our living rooms. We spend a lot of time talking to her so that she will play music for us. She also turns on and off some lights while we are on vacation. I hear she listens in on our conversations but that is for another post. What matters is that I can communicate with a robot sitting on a table.

I also can communicate with people. Remember when making an international call was costly and difficult? Remember when making a long-distance domestic call was advanced? No more. And now you can even see the people at the other end if you use Skype or your iPhone. We can talk and talk and talk. Grandpa, did you gain a few pounds? Ha hah. Hey, Grandma is that a little mustache on your lip?

When I say "Hey Google" to my phone, I can communicate an information need. It’s more fun than typing into my Google search bar. Then Google tells me stuff that I forgot. Hey Google, when was Dolly Parton born? Hey Google, what year did Elvis die? When was Party Doll banned in Boston? I can even look up the seven signs of a coming heart attack. How cool is that? And I can do all this in my easy chair, in my car, and while walking on a crowded sidewalk.

This really is the age of communication and possibly the age of information and communication (I&C). Remember when we were kids and we had a huge bookcase in the living room that held our family encyclopedia? We had the kind you get when you accumulated enough Green Stamps. More financially successful families had the version by Britannica. But both did the same thing – they connected us to all sorts of facts. Now we don’t need a bookshelf or thousands of pages of paper and print. We now have computers, tablets, and phones. All that information and more is easily found in those tiny little boxes. It is more accessible and much cheaper.

All the above sounds pretty good. But here is what worries me after my fourth JD. Is there any connection between knowledge and the age of I&C? A naïve person would think there was not only a connection but a damn good positive one. That is, with more information and communication at our fingertips, surely we must know more and surely we must have more positive control over our environment. Surely more I&C makes us better off. 

Imagine taking a physics class where you learn all sorts of important things about the world. Things that make your life better. For example, Professor Bortell taught us about gravity and made us repeat several times that what goes up must come down. I can still remember that and so far I have not once hit myself on the head after throwing heavy objects into the air. Today’s physics students have to learn the same theories but I am guessing that job is made all the easier because of the ease of finding information about things that we could only find in our heavy, thick textbooks and encyclopedias.

But then I started thinking and wondering if there is a trade-off between knowledge and I&C. Is it possible that it allows people to squander their time rather than enhance it? We all know that learning a language, for example, takes a lot of time and repetition. It does not matter how much easy information you have accessible about Spanish pronouns or German sausage. Ha Ha. I meant German verbs. All that information availability is fine, but it cannot replace the 10,000 hours you need repeating Donde esta la biblioteka.

Think of all the things you learned in your life that needed time in the saddle. How did you learn multiplication of numbers up to 15? How did you learn the location of each state? All the classes of animals and plants? How did you learn algebra? Biology? How did you learn how to say how did you learn? Sorry about that one. But my point is that learning takes time and effort and then even more time and more effort. Maybe you were one of those people who found learning easy. Lucky you.

When I go anywhere these days I marvel at all the people who are connected – talking on the phone, writing texts, watching videos, listening to music, and so on. And then I worry that all these people are getting addicted. Can you go for more than 17 seconds without checking your email? Facebook? I go to a gym. Most people are there for less than an hour and some of them are on their phones the whole time. What kind of workout is that? You can't leave your phone in your locker for 60 minutes? 

This new drug of I&C gives us more and easier excuses. It’s not fun to do the hard work of learning, of acquiring knowledge. Many of us crave excuses to avoid this hard learning. If so, how are you finding the time to memorize your multiplication tables? That’s what I wonder about. Excuses have always been around. To avoid studying, my roomie and I used to walk across the bridge over Interstate 75/85 to have a chili dog and watch Laugh-In on TV at the Varsity Restaurant in Atlanta. On a nice day, one can always stare at the beauty of the surroundings. Excuses from work have always been there. But it seems to me that the Age of I&C has taken this one step further. Phones demand our constant attention. How do we find time to learn valuable things? Alexa, did the cashier give me the right change? Please!!!!!

We often hear people lament the fact that US students are falling behind those of other countries. How are we going to generate enough scientists and engineers if we are all sitting around staring at our phones? How are we going to create enough voters who are able to make good political decisions when it’s a lot easier and more fun to join a radical Facebook group? Knowledge is indispensable to a prosperous and happy society. I am not so sure that I&C is going to get us there. 


  1. Agree absolutely on this. Pieces of information are not knowlege and even knowledge is not understanding. Knowledge and understanding come from working with ideas that connect the relationships between pieces of information so you can see how the parts connect. I think information is like learning parts of the body in anatomy. But that doesn't make you a doctor even if you know each part or can look it up on your smart phone. It's how the different aspects of the anatomy work together, what can go wrong and what can correct the problem. That makes you a doctor, and that takes spending a lot of time on the biochemistry of cells, and seeing lots of patients so you develop a sense of what is going on overall. Of course, then there is artificial inelligence. That's more than information...and a little scary.

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  4. Dear LSD. Your observations ring my bell . . . er, or tickle my gills. Technology facilitates . . . stimilates, easily . . . . . folks to access info sources that might not be accurate (aka can you say fake newz?) resulting in (mis)information that in turn makes murky the assumption of twue knowledge. Therefore and henceforth any subsequent communikation occurring likely is subject to misinterpretation—fallacious even. To the extent the sender and recipient of that communiqué are low-informed folks we will see a closed loop of verbal, mental, and digital confusion. Much like seen on the various talk’n heads on netwit TV and cable stations.

    So, is there any connection between knowledge and I&C? Allow me the extravagance of an analogy. Regression analysis uses the coefficient of correlation to suggest the strength of relationship between two variables: 1.0 or -1.0 suggests a jam-packed positive or negative relationship. A 0.0 suggests absolutely no relationship. Here there are three variables: info, communication, and knowledge—thus a multiple regression. I asked Siri about the coefficient of correlation of the three and she replied I should have another lobotomy ‘cause apparently the first one didn’t take. Then I consulted Ouija—a continuous loop of indecision tired my fins moving the stupid planchette around. Berry berry confusing—so I don’t think there’s a berry strong connection between info, communication, and knowledge—too much variability in them. Coefficient of correlation = 0.0.

    I think your opening paragraph sums it up pretty good . . . the irony of the “age of communication.” Despite being able to communicate instantly/globally we’re limited by the integrity and accuracy of the “knowledge” sources accessed. Instant communication does not make us any smarter or knowledgeable if the source is flawed, unintentional or not. Unintended consequences = making us stupider faster and disagweeing—sometimes violently—‘cause we be uninformed. Stupid is as stupid does.Is it 5pm yet?

    1. Thanks Tuna, sorry it took a while to get to this but apparently Google has changed its way of letting me know people leave comments. Ugh!