Real Talk, Virtual Bodies: The Technology of Communication

by Linda Xu

As you sit down for lunch, you might find yourself surrounded by a few friends, a circle of acquaintances, or more likely, a large crowd of strangers. Sitting alone, you pull out your phone to send a text or check for notifications. Five minutes later, you pull your phone out again to refresh your email, or perhaps glance through your Facebook newsfeed. An hour passes, and you find yourself still glued to the screen, mindlessly tapping away on Flappy Bird or scrolling through quizzes on Buzzfeed, entirely oblivious to the bustle of people around you.

Situations like the one above make it clear why many critics accuse technology of replacing “real” communication with mindless and impersonal interactions through filters and screens. Indeed, as communication technology progresses, the way we interact with each other continues to undergo drastic changes. How have these changes been impacting our lives and societies? To answer this question, we will begin by exploring what “real” communication really is, before touching upon the present and future innovations in communication technology.

The Illusion of “Real” Communication

Article headlines on how social media and texting are destroying “real” communication are a dime a dozen. What remains unclear, however, is what “real” communication really is. After all, even the first writing systems were a form of communication technology, although few people will argue that written communication is not “real.”

The pattern of skepticism is present at every milestone on the history of communication technology. The invention of the printing press, today hailed as one of the most important inventions in history, was initially met with skepticism and fear that its arrival would breed laziness and cause the disappearance of the creativity that defined the handwritten book.1 The invention of the telephone met the same hesitation – Mark Twain famous stated in a Christmas card that it was his “heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope … that all of us … the despised, the loved … the civilized, the savage … may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss – except the inventor of the telephone”.2 Even though telephone use, like most forms of communication technology, was eventually accepted into society for its speed and convenience, suspicions that telephone calls are monitored by the government, or that phone use leads to brain damage, remain present to this day.3 In short, “real” communication is not an absolute – we can only evaluate the pros and cons of the different methods we use.

The Good, the Bad, and the Trolls

Today, communication is dominated by virtual and electronic interactions. Modern Internet users share snippets of their lives on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, with users commonly favoring photos and hashtags over long-flowing prose. In many ways, the shift to online social media is positive: social media allows users to create global connections and networks that would otherwise be impossible. Incredibly, by 2017, the number of people using social media is predicted to be over 2.5 billion.4 Additionally, not only is breadth of social connection increasing, but new applications of technology to communication, such as electronic books, online education, and telemedicine, are bridging distances to make resources more accessible to the public.

Nonetheless, critics remain doubtful that social interaction through snappy text messages and Facebook “likes” will ever be an adequate replacement for in-person verbal conversation. As cynics accuse the younger generation of losing the capacity to ever experience “true love,” researchers have produced disturbing evidence that Internet “trolls” – individuals who write anonymous provocative Internet messages to create conflict – show a notable positive correlation with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.5 Furthermore, social media has been shown to negatively impact self-esteem and self-worth, increasing self-objectification in women and leading to increased desire for cosmetic surgery.6 Social media was created to connect individuals in social networks, but the opportunity to be whomever you want on the Internet may be isolating – rather than connecting – users, reducing social interactions into shallow illusions of socialization.

Virtual Bodies and Telepresence

Fortunately, despite pessimistic views on virtual communication, new innovations are pushing back against the idea that technology cannot meet the standards of face-to-face conversation. Cisco’s “Telepresence” is setting the stage for 3D holographic video calls, which will enable everything from cross-country performance collaborations to holographic physician “visits” directly to the patient’s home.7 The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab is also working on telepresence, but from a slightly different angle: “physical telepresence” employs a shape-changing touch screen interface that can simulate physical contact by changing shape to match the detected movement and shape of a remote user.8 In the case of telepresence, the aforementioned criticisms on technology and human interaction are no longer relevant, as the concept of interacting via “virtual bodies” rejects the very concept of “in-person” interaction. Combined with the ability of the Internet to cross borders and seas, these emerging communication interfaces will allow for “personal” interaction across thousands of miles with the click of a button.

An Optimistic Future

Despite the resistance that technology inevitably faces, it is undeniable that new innovations in communication are transforming our world into a more interconnected social network. As technology progresses, we will continue to face challenges in balancing our virtual worlds with our true identities, and in using technology for its benefits rather than its distractions. Nonetheless, new developments in communication technology promise exciting changes to the way we interact.

Linda Xu ‘16 is a junior in Eliot House, concentrating in Neurobiology.

Works Cited

  1. The Typewriter. Carbons to Computers, 1998. (accessed Apr. 25, 2015).
  2. Ward, G.C. et al. Mark Twain. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher; New York, 2001; 138-139. (accessed Apr. 25, 2015).
  3. 1870s-1940s: Telephone. (accessed Apr. 25, 2015).
  4. Social Networking Reaches Nearly One in Four Around the World. eMarketer, June 18, 2013. (accessed Apr. 25, 2015).
  5. Buckels, E.E. et al. Pers. Individ. Dif. 2014. 67, 97-102.
  6. de Vries, D.A. Social media and online self-presentation: Effects on how we see ourselves and our bodies. FMG: Amsterdam School of Communication Research. 2014, 1-157.
  7. Wildstrom, S.H. CISCO: the network. (accessed Apr. 24, 2015)
  8. Brownlee, J. FastCoDesign. (accessed Apr. 24, 2015)

Categories: Spring 2015

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