Masthead CMC Magazine / April 9, 2005

Is Communication Technology Really Evolving?

Engineers are missing the point by re-creating today’s problems in tomorrow’s technology.

By Scott Millward, Ph.D. (

 What is mediated communication, really? Strictly defined it may cover any meaning transfer between two or more people that is facilitated by some technology. This concept dates back over ten thousand years to the use of symbolic pictographs imprinted on clay coins for facilitating the exchange of goods between merchants. As simple as these symbols may have been by comparison to today’s currency, their effect must have been extraordinary. The concept of demarking types of currency with commonly accepted symbols allowed a person to convey a meaning without the use of spoken language, or even the need to be physically present. This liberation from the co-location boundaries of early communication sparked a human drive toward creative expression that blossomed throughout the centuries into a multitude of communication technologies ranging from written language, to stylized artistic impression, to electronic devices.

In today’s age of connectivity, mediated communication has become more associated with high technology mediums such as the internet, cell phones or video conferences. In developed societies virtually everyone is connected in some way that did not exist just decades ago. Indeed, given the right resources, the capability now exists to connect almost any two points on the face of the planet. Rather than mere access, a more recent goal for many developers is to create connections that are faithful to the feel of face-to-face interaction. This feeling of being there in a remote location is called telepresence (as in teleporting one’s presence). It is the holy grail of virtual reality engineers and is heralded as a solution to many of the problems of distributed communication. IMAX theaters and virtual reality video games already make use of technology to exploit this psychological construct, however, more everyday uses may be on the horizon. Converging technologies ranging from haptic interfaces, to wearable nano-technology, may allow for some semblance of distributed face-to-face interaction in near the future. Of course, this technologically deterministic approach has a logical end when the medium becomes so transparent that it disappears entirely, which of course begs the question what next?

Currently there is little credible evidence supporting a link between immersive technologies and improved productivity for most interactions. However, this does not mean that there is no utility in simulating a real experience in a virtual environment. Certainly entertainment, education, medicine and other fields will find great value in such devices as their performances improve. But what about the business of everyday communication? Do we really want to feel like we are in the same room with cousin Marty when we talk on the virtual phone?

For many social scientists the idea of recreating face-to-face communication, in a virtual sense, presents an interesting conundrum. Media scholar Michael Schrage, of MIT, summarizes this dilemma neatly:

I deal with people all the time who talk about how videoconferencing is going to save time. It’s going to save time on travel. It will be more effective and efficient. Every single person I’ve talked with, every white-collar worker I’ve asked, "What’s the biggest waste of your time?" has said, "Meetings." And then they talk about videoconferencing. Geez, why would we recreate in cyberspace the single biggest waste of time we have in the physical world?

Schrage’s point is simple, but important. As technology provides the capability to overcome the barriers of distance and time, future mediums must develop beyond simply allowing people to connect in ways that merely resemble face-to-face communication. Recreating the authenticity of real world interpersonal exchanges doesn’t solve a host of communication problems people have struggled with for centuries. While the "wow" factor of feeling like you are in the same room with someone may be fun, does it really help us to accomplish the fundamental goal of shared meaning?

Consider the following example. Andy is a mid level manager for an international software development company. He has always had difficulty speaking in front of groups and tries desperately to avoid such situations. Like clockwork, as soon as the attention of others is focused on him he begins to feel flushed, butterflies erupt inside his stomach and a severe stutter prevents him from conveying his ideas in a coherent manner. Since Andy has been abroad on assignment he has been participating in weekly meetings via teleconference. He has found that when not having to actually see the others in the meeting his ability to present his reports has improved. Recently Andy’s company has undergone a technology upgrade. They have asked him to implement a new prototype communication device that displays a holographic image inside his apartment of the home office meeting room, and the other participants. He is concerned that this new technology will make him feel like he is back at the corporate office and his communication troubles will begin anew.

Andy’s problem is a common one, and improving his communication bandwidth is not likely to be a solution. This should not imply that technology cannot help ease Andy’s difficulties. Indeed social scientists can and should guide in the development of technologies for solving face-to-face communication problems in their naturally occurring context.

One example is a project called Transonics solutions developed by the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California. Transonics is a speech-to-speech translation device to aid in communication between non English speaking patients and their English speaking doctors. Simply put a doctor speaks into the microphone using English, the device employs voice recognition and machine translation software to convert the spoken words into another language, and then a computer generated voice does the rest. While the results fall far short of the universal translator, of Star Trek fame, it does provide an elegantly simple solution to the gathering of vital medical information in a face-to-face context where language is a barrier.

This technology may have other interesting effects as well. Studies suggest that the presence of human translators in the medical office often alters the amount and type of information a patient is willing to give his or her physician. Cultural taboos, embarrassment, or mistrust all play a role when a third person is present during the exchange of sensitive information. Thus, Transonics not only extends the capabilities of the users, but seeks to cater to their communication preferences as well.

There is no reason why Andy’s company, and others who develop high end distributed communication systems, cannot do the same. The point of this article is not to suggest that engineers are headed down the wrong path in developing technologies that make us feel more connected. Instead the point is that we should also be concerned about actually being more connected. In the end, Technology that begins by solving a fundamental communication problem holds more promise for human utility than gizmos with a brief novelty effect. [Index]

Scott Millward received his Ph.D. from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. He is currently a human factors engineer at the Integrated Media Systems Center located at USC.

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