Communication is defined as “the exchange of information.” In our Age of Information, it is assumed that communication has never been easier. However, closer analysis reveals that since the advent of electronic technology, some unforeseen difficulties have come with our advancements.
It is true that innovations like email, video-chatting, social media and text messaging allow us levels of contact unprecedented in human history. But has connecting with the world come at the cost of connecting with those around us? By trying to send our words thousands of miles away, have they missed being spoken right in front of us?
In a time when the text message is beginning to replace the phone call, we still have a lot to learn about the positive and negative effects recent innovations have had on the way we communicate.
One of the most poignant changes is the fading art of the written letter. I still vaguely remember some of my early years before the release of the original iPhone when I would eagerly await the arrival to my mailbox of written replies from cousins and other family members. Physically holding the thoughts of a person's heart and mind expressed on paper in their own unique handwriting evokes a feeling that words cannot express.
The decline of the letter is a part of the larger diminution of handwriting in general. I really appreciate the neatness of a typed piece of writing printed on crisp copy paper, but almost everything I write begins with a pen and my notebook, and the transmutation to a word processing document is a part of the editing process. In the course of the last few years, I have found that the writing process emanates more naturally with pen than with keyboard. There is something deeply human about holding an instrument in your hand and watching the words flow right from the tips of your fingers. From the stylus and clay tablet to the pen and paper, writing awakens something in us that connects us with our ancestors and transcends centuries.
Since communication involves the transmission of information, it is necessary to have something worth saying. One of the paramount ways of receiving information is through books. As the great philosopher René Descartes said, “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”
But, despite the access that technology has given us to the best books of history, many Americans are reading less now than ever. As reported in a 2018 Washington Post article, the 2017 American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found only about 19% of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day, down from roughly 28% in 2004. Another study, published by the American Psychological Association in 2018, found that in recent years, less than 20% of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine, or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80% say they use social media every day. According to the study, “in the early 1990s, 33% of 10th-graders said they read a newspaper almost every day. By 2016, that number was only 2%. In the late 1970s, 60% of 12th-graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, only 16% did.”
Perhaps as important as reading is time spent for reflection on what we have learned, but the hours we spend in front of screens does not leave much time for serious thought. The philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said that “all men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” The constant stimulation offered by electronics makes it easy to avoid thinking about the bigger things in life.
I have grown up in an interesting time that has allowed me to get the best of both worlds: The traditional methods of pen and paper, and the innovative skills of the keyboard. I have been particularly grateful that the internet has helped me find so many amazing books to read and allows me to stay informed on world events with only a few clicks of the keypad, but I am also glad that I was taught to appreciate penmanship and the art of conversation. Like every tool, digital technology is only as beneficial or detrimental as the way it is used. Technology throughout all ages was made to amplify and not replace the personal element of communication.
Let our future generations grow skilled in the use of the internet, social media and smartphones, but let them also learn that these innovations take their place alongside the pen, the newspaper, the book and the spoken word, so that they may appreciate the quest for communication that makes us human.
Victor Gelfuso is a senior at Richfield Springs Central School. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Facebook at victorgelfusospeaking.