The Speed of Sound

Can communication be too easy or too cheap?

| January/February 2002

Several years ago, the college where I teach created an electronic 'quick mail' system to reduce our use of paper and to increase our efficiency. Electronic communication is now standard in most organizations. The results, however, are mixed at best. The most obvious is a large increase in the sheer volume of stuff communicated, much of it utterly trivial.

I have also witnessed a manifest decline in the grammar, literary style, and civility of communication. People are less likely these days to stroll down the hall or across campus to converse. Our conversations, thought patterns, and institutional clockspeed are increasingly shaped to fit the imperatives of technology. Not surprisingly, more and more people feel overloaded by the demands of incessant 'communication.' But to say so publicly is to run afoul of the technological fundamentalism that is now dominant virtually everywhere.

By default and without much thought, it has been decided for us that communication ought to be cheap, easy, and quick. Accordingly, more and more of us are instantly wired to the global nervous system with cell phones, beepers, pagers, fax machines, and e-mail. Though this wiring is useful in real emergencies, the overall result is to homogenize the important with the trivial, making everything an emergency and making an already frenetic civilization even more so. We are drowning in unassimilated information, most of which fits no meaningful picture of the world. In our public affairs and in our private lives we are increasingly muddleheaded because we have mistaken volume and speed of information for substance and clarity.

It is time to consider the possibility that—for the most part—communication ought to be somewhat slower, more difficult, and more expensive than it is now. Beyond some relatively low threshold, the rapid movement of information works against the emergence of knowledge, which requires time to mull things over, to test results, to change perceptions and behavior. The clockspeed of genuine wisdom, which requires the integration of many different levels of knowledge, is slower still. Only over generations, through a process of trial and error, can knowledge eventually congeal into cultural wisdom about the art of living well within the resources, assets, and limits of a place.

From EarthLight (Spring 2001). Subscriptions: $20/yr (4 issues) from 111 Fairmount Ave., Oakland, CA 94611.

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