Perhaps more oddly than most, I am fascinated with channels of communication. Any of them. Do you imagine the methods pirates and naval captains used to pass information around their ships? I have. How did they do so efficiently (or not) during the chaos of battle? Runners? Yelling really loudly? I want to know. What was the everyday banter like on an old naval ship? What is it like today? People on ships were shitting and stinking and under a lot of stress so you know there was fkn weird shit going on.
I’m no military communications expert, but one interesting channel I know sailors used are voice pipes aka speaking tubes. As a I kid, I toured the USS Constitution. A couple of times. My dad is a fanatic of the ship and we toured it as a family multiple times. My partner and I had wedding photos taken outside it because despite not being from Boston, that’s where we were married. Dad still drinks his morning coffee out of a vintage Old Ironsides mug.
On one of those tours as a kid, my dad pointed out the voice pipes which sailors would use to yell orders and commands over distances easier especially while cannons were booming on deck. Voice pipes are still used today.
This guy does have a few additional communication channels at his disposal, however.
Channels are infrastructure and means - an actual physical (or digital) object which shapes how communication will or can go and what happens in it. Every channel has a shape. The information and messages that sent via voice pipes will look and feel one way — with very certain purposes. And what happens in a different channel will be, well, different, with other purposes.
We’re not eating candlelight dinners from opposite ends of a voice pipe.
One Foot On Either Side
Good old Generation X. Old enough to remember life before the internet, but young enough to be fascinated by all the wild technological developments of our lifetimes. I remember when cell phone service was shit and having more than zero games on your phone was a luxury. Yet I get pissed at Siri because she wont do what I want. I also wonder if that Alexa thermostat down the hall really is disabled or if I should just anticipate an settlement check — probably in the form of Bezos Bucks — at some point in my future. “Whoops, sorry we actually recorded all your data. Take this and forget it all happened. Don’t mind us, we were just building your robot overlords.”
I remember first hearing about the internet in 1993. The internet itself was kind of old by then, but just blossoming into the more public, and less DARPA-project, we know it as today. The Information Superhighway. There was a story on Channel One during homeroom class which was how I first learned about “THE INTERNET.”
There were actually quite a few stories about the internet happening in those days and it was a regular topic on Channel One that year. People were talking about it like it was this cool new thing, which it was. These weird packages and booklets from AOL with cds in them started showing up. The computers at Best Buy and Circuit City got better quickly. RAM speeds like you had never seen. 32MB. Crazy times.
The allure of this new channel and what was possible on it, pulled us in. My interest was piqued early after hearing these stories on Channel One and my first ventures onto the internet were shrouded in secrecy and subversion.
When I met the internet, it was by figuring out how to rig up the family computer to the modem, adjusting the modem settings in Windows 3.1 so I could dial in to a computer I shouldn’t have had access to. No small task or feat if you knew nothing about how computers as I did.
Dialing into the internet. Can you hear the sound?
I became privy to the logon information of a friend’s older brother’s friend who went to Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I learned that you could call into a local Chicago number at Illinois-Chicago and get your computer online. I figured out how to dial via the modem, entered the haxored logon information, and bam! I was browsing USENET groups with Telnet commands!
I’m hoping the statute of limitations on my computer hacking has run out.
It wasn’t long before my parents had dial up internet in the house and my internet expanded beyond the USENET groups I found in those early days of unauthorized entry. My hacking days ended.
Oh, by the way, the password was “password.”
We all got email addresses and at some point, this internet really grew into all these new ways to connect with other people. AOL Instant Messenger, IRC chat, message boards, discussion forums. Only later was it social media and many of the technological whizzbangs that you all know and love and hate today. Circa 1998, my internet was Yahoo! Games, tape trading message boards, and music chatrooms.
Things have advanced some since then.
Weird things started happening. Trolling. Flaming. Spam bots. Messages informing you your Aunt had been kidnapped in Guatemala and needed money. Or that you were being contacted to facilitate a transaction for a Nigerian Prince.
Well past these early days I’ve described, there are still message boards and chat rooms, as we would expect, though they’ve certainly evolved. USENET groups were the primordial muck circa 1992-1993. Channels have evolved. The ways and forms of communication have changed and will continue to change. New tubes. And new things built on top of those tubes. What does the future hold?
Interactions Beyond Screens
The amount of human connection that has come to be mediated by screens is truly astounding. Zoomland 2020 amplified this realization, but it’s more than Zoom. Social media, smartphones, smart TVs, gaming platforms, it’s all screens everywhere you look. At my own work station — if I wanted — I could have 6 screens (2 laptops, 2 monitors, 2 phones) or 7 (if I added the iPad). Insanity!
While screens might increase our productivity or make it easier or more fun to connect and do things together, screens are rightly maligned as well. Imagine people sitting around a living room everyone sucked into their own little phone world. They’re interacting but also avoiding those around them. So, are they? There are health risks. But it’s not the screens that drive us away from one another. Quite the opposite actually, they only highlight our fundamental need to be connected. It’s not the technology we’re addicted to, it’s the human at the other end.
Assuming humans manage to eek out existence for a few more decades, we may advance beyond screen technology to more ambient forms. For example, it’s already theoretically possible to communicate interpersonally via some sort of advanced hologram technology. Holograms have already been done “at scale” (E.g. Hologram Tupac at 2012 Coachella) and will only advance or die from where they are now which is well beyond 2012 levels. Technologically-speaking, there’s very little from stopping a “virtual” interaction between two humans who are engaging entirely with immersed digital representations of the other person or other entities.
In the future, plenty of these sorts of interactions will be not with other humans, but with genie-like AI entities that will appear or present themselves — probably to encourage us to buy shit, but also hopefully in creative interactions, guided history, and public solidarity actions.
Digitally co-present, embodied conversations without screens is surely possible. And it will be weird.
Bodies, Implants, and Other Bio-Technological Strangeness
A different, but related new technological direction, involves the addition of tactile technologies and multi-sensory experiences. Wearables and other sorts of body-tactile technologies are likely to be central to the next wave of human communication experiences, but so far science fiction still outstretches reality. It appears likely, however, that the augmentation of human experience will continue. We didn’t stop at inventing eyeglasses.
Our bodies are involved in communication but at the same time our brains and perceptions are also limited in how much information they can sift through at least in their un-augmented state. Certain forms of wearables and ambient technologies are likely to shape how humans are able to sift through, use, and play with all kinds of information. These technologies make wild meaning possible. Again, communication gets weird.
A top 3 crazy episode of Black Mirror for me is the one where couples can rehash previous conversations, playback essential memories, or document evidence of relational wrongdoing via there implanted chip rewind devices. People looping themselves back through experiences, both pleasurable and of jealousy. Revisiting video transcripts wielding past words like a weapon. Obsession over how something was said, the look a person gave, or how others responded.
When you start talking wearables, implants in bodies, and chips in brains the consequences for communication are radical. Things barely imagined. Are our monkey brains capable of handling the exponential increase in weirdness that comes with these sorts of technologies?
We humans cling to the old while embracing the new. Monkeys swinging from vine to vine.