Wednesday, October 05, 2005

modes of communication

Okay, I have been thinking over the past few months how the mode of communication attaches meaning to it. I’ve been meaning to post about it forever, and conversations with friends and in classes helped nuance my ideas. So here’s what I’m thinking: the advent of cell phones, email, IM etc change the meaning of the initial contact, and change the way we think about relational communication. I’ve been thinking mainly about letters vs email and the change in phone significance between cell phones and telephones.

The first issue I’ve been thinking about is cost. With letters and long distance calls on a landline, there is a small but significant cost to the person who chooses to initiate the conversation. When I send a letter to a friend it costs me $0.37 ($0.80 if they are in another country). A small price, but a price nonetheless. Receiving a letter in the mail, then, has inherent value over an email because it cost the writer something besides the time to type an email and the thought to send it. Long distance phone calls work in much the same way. Receiving a long distance phone call used to be like receiving a gift. The caller thought it was important enough to speak to you that they were willing to spend money on it. Because of the way cell phones are billed, this is different. It costs me the same to place a call as to receive it, so the significance of receiving a long distance call is significantly less in the cell phone era. I’m still parsing out what this means for relationships (especially long-distance ones), their significance and their maintenance. I know that if it weren’t for free email, IM, “in” calling, and nights and weekends I’d have lost touch with many people that I am glad to stay in touch with, but does the ease of contact make it somehow less significant?

Another change with the advent of cell phones is this: I now call people instead of places. Before cell phones one had to know where someone was in order to get a hold of that person. One also had the chance of talking to any one of a number of people present at a particular place. Now, if I want to leave a message for someone, I just call his or her cell regardless of time or place. If they are unavailable, I assume I will just be able to leave a voicemail, which my friend will receive when it is convenient. This is certainly more reliable and convenient form of communication, but it also detaches us a bit from place. When our contact-ability does not depend on location, does this make us less aware of the significance of a particular place?

Does all this technology that eases our communication make place and distance less significant? Or does it just make us believe that physical space is less significant? Is this good or bad?


Bob K said...

Interesting questions, Bethany! I think that the ease of communication certainly reduces the "specialness" of it but it also increases the frequency. Do the two even out?

MattyA said...

Have you noticed that in our cell phone age the first question in a phone conversation has shifted from "how are you" to "where are you?" And, in Europe cell phones don't get billed for incoming calls. It becomes this fun game of which person will get fed up with sending confusing text messages (which are huge here) and break down and make the call. I usually lose this game, by the way.

dylan said...

yeah, so i've got a whole rant on how IM and sex and the city have led to the decline of civilization, and how we're all just mindless, grammarless, sex driven simpletons now.

that's all i have

Marty said...

Specialness or frequency....what is more important? Would you rather talk to someone once a month and make it more special, or talk to them more often?

All i know is that without having my cell phone i almost feel lost cause i dont know what is going on. How sad is that?

But all in all, i dont think that i would rather give up my cell phone and go back to just land lines any more like bob the two even out?

Pinon Coffee said...

Hope you don't mind me posting; I know Brooks and found your blog from his. :-)

I thought about this question some over the summer, when I was home from college and kept up with my friends mostly via blogging. My conclusion: in-person friendships are better.

My general opinion is that technology is not itself good or bad, but is instrumental. And you point out truly that the easier it is to communicate with others, the less we do.

I hadn't noticed what you mentioned about calling the person, rather than the place. Good point. I don't know what to make of it.

On that somewhat disorganized note, I go away to eat with my own companions. :-) I will return to your blog.