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?