Getting your message through: will we still be texting in 2030?
31st Dec 2013 | 13:00
Talking to your dog through your phone. This has to happen.
"Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you," said Alexander Graham Bell on March 10 1876 in the first telephone call. The technology pioneered by Bell was soon making it possible for anyone to hold conversations across the world in an instant.
The fixed line evolved into the mobile phone and eventually the smartphone. Today, we're not just holding instant conversations across time and space, but we're also participating in multiple chats across varied platforms, from voice to text to disappearing pictures, simultaneously.
It's what Professor Kenneth J. Gergen of Swathmore College, in his paper on cell phone technology, has termed "absent presence": we might be physically in a room, but our attention is elsewhere, and it's being divided into smaller and smaller chunks.
As this technological upheaval continues, how will our inability to concentrate on one task impact the way we communicate with each other over the next 10-20 years?
Is face-to-face communication set to become rarer and rarer in the decades ahead? We've asked some of the experts in the field on whether we can expect radical changes in the way we gain and hold the attention of another human being.
Scott Campbell is the Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, specialising in the study of how mobile communication affects both public and private life. He sees different types of relationships appearing as mobile technology evolves:
"I think we are experiencing a trend toward increased 'layered' communication, with technology being used to manage multiple flows of information and communication at once.
"Sometimes this can detract from the quality of our face-to-face communication, but it can also enhance it - like when someone far away is integrated into a co-present group of individuals - for example, when grandma Skypes in to experience her grandson blowing out his birthday candles."
Even in 2013, there's a need to manage close, one-on-one relationships (your partner, family members, etc) with weaker, virtual ones (e.g. Twitter followers), and Campbell thinks technology will adapt to help us out rather than render us dumb receptacles to an endless stream of social media.
"In the future, I think we will see this 'layering' become more seamless and integrated into our communication experiences," he says.
"An example of movement in this direction is head-mounted interfaces, like Google Glass. These types of innovations keep the eyes more centralised, so that it's less like engaging in two different social worlds in terms of a screen we look down to and our physical environment."
This idea of technology getting out of the way is echoed by Jonathan MacDonald, a respected speaker and adviser on technology's impact on society and business.
Having worked with the likes of Google and Apple in the past, MacDonald told TechRadar what he sees coming down the line in terms of the way the humble message will shift from the screen to an altogether more intimate experience: "Exponential growth indicates that by 2030 the average size of a computer chip will be the size of a blood cell and around one billion times more capable than today.
"Due to this, it isn't too far fetched to imagine the ability to communicate via emotion without an intermediary device. It is highly likely that much of the communication machinery will live under our skin. Literally.
"I think the way we interact in the future will not be a technological thing but a human thing," continues MacDonald. "Technology is becoming invisible and eventually that will leave sentiment and message.
"Whatever modern technology there is today that has physical form has, in my opinion, a questionable future."
We're already seeing the growth of voice-based and gesture-based controls - look at Apple's recent purchase of Kinect company PrimeSense - and we're also seeing a unification of services such as Skype and Google Hangouts across multiple devices.
If the technology we use to communicate fades into the background, this could be good news for single, one-on-one interactions rather than dozens of fleeting ones across multiple social media accounts.
Like Campbell, MacDonald doesn't think that face-to-face communications are necessarily under threat either, highlighting the fact that interaction is unlikely to become more and more virtual with every passing year: "I believe that if we move towards a more augmented and virtual reality it may come to pass that we value real human interactions at a higher value than we do now," he adds.
Florie Brizel, an author, consultant and researcher who has been studying mobile technology and communication since 2003, takes a slightly different view. She believes the nature of our relationships may be under threat, but that there is hope for the future.
"I think the pendulum will continue to swing away from face-to-face for a while," Brizel told us. "Eventually, people will stop looking at their devices and return to face-to-face communication... but why we look to each other may change.
"If we lose the ability to interact and find comfort with face-to-face communication then I think we will have lost an inherent part of our humanity."
Putting in the FaceTime
As anyone who has sat around a table or bar will testify, real-world one-on-one relationships suffer if there are mobiles in the room.
Science agrees: a 2013 study from Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein at the University of Essex found that weaker connections were made if a cell phone was nearby, even if it was switched off and out of reach, meaning that our bond with the mobile phone, be it the nervousness of missing an email or wanting to stay in touch with an online conversation, is having a dramatic impact on the richness of our current communications.
However, this research involved pairs of strangers meeting for the first time. In a 2010 experiment carried out by the aforementioned Scott Campbell and his colleague Nojin Kwak, the results suggested that spending more time on the phone with someone leads to more face-to-face time with the same person.
Could it be that browsing your friend's Facebook page gives you more to talk about when you next meet, or makes you more eager to meet in the first place?
"It's difficult to forecast, but based on recent and historical trends, I think it's safe to say that face-to-face will remain an important part of how people interact," says Campbell.
"So far, most of the evidence suggests that online and mobile channels are not taking away from face-to-face interaction, but complementing it. In some cases, especially with mobile, technology fuels face-to-face interaction when used to coordinate meet-ups."
Talk to the animals
If technological advances can help us communicate with each other more efficiently, will we even be able to talk to animals in the future thanks to technology?
Professor Con Slobodchikoff is an animal behaviourist and conservation biologist currently on the staff of the University of Arizona. He has carried out extensive research on animal communications and written a book on the topic — Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals.
Slobodchikoff told us: "A number of animals have languages that they can use in ways that are similar to our language — the challenge is learning how to decode those languages.
"That involves building a dictionary of animal language words that are used in different contexts... once we know what the words mean, we already have the tools to begin to communicate with animals."
Slobodchikoff and his computer scientist colleague John Placer have already developed synthesizing software that can warn prairie dogs about nearby predators, built from an extensive set of data collected from the pair's monitoring equipment. In 10 or 20 years, this kind of equipment will have improved dramatically.
It therefore makes sense that if such a database can be developed, we could have technology within our bodies that would be able to translate an animal sound in real life conversation - although holding the conversation might be somewhat trickier.
So prepare yourself for this inevitable future: invisible technology inside you that gets out of the way and makes face-to-face communication possible wherever and whenever, and you might even be able to Skype your cat as easily as your grandmother.
If our experts are right, new technologies will augment physical one-on-one communication, rather than create replacements for it.
In the face of an increasing number of weak, virtual connections, the close relationship might be heading for a comeback.