Communications Technology Paradoxes


Article originally by Robert Colburn

This article was initially published in Today's Engineer on August 2009

The history of technology is full of paradoxes. One of the strangest of these is that as communication technologies have increased in rapidity and reach, information has gotten stripped away each time there has been an advance. The telegraph, because of the expense per word and the volume of characters sent, forced an economy of words, attenuated sentences, and abbreviations in order to condense meaning, “CQ” (“seek you”) “GM” (“Good Morning”), “IX5B” (“It is believed that…”), and “YAP” (“yesterday afternoon”). Radio play-by-play broadcasts of baseball games in distant cities were done with the sportscaster reading from telegraph transmissions and describing the action as though watching it live (President Reagan and Red Barber were two of the more famous sportscasters who worked at this). Lewis Coe, in his book, The Telegraph, describes some of the shorthand used to keep up with the pace of the game: ‘S1C meant “strike one called”; S2F, “strike two fanned” ; PTF “pitcher to first”; FB “foul back”; NTG AX, “no runs, no hits, no errors, none left.”’

Text messaging has brought this style of abbreviated conversation back. The paradox being that wireless communication devices — which now can send anything from voice to data to images — were intended to broaden our communications pallette rather than reduce it. Are we compressing more information into these terse formats, or stripping information out? In our rush to transfer volumes of information, are we missing the essential connections which make communication important? Will we reduce human speech to a series of clicks and grunts? Information is supposed to be the antidote to ambiguity, but in the terseness of our technologically-shaped communication, we risk ambiguity creeping in.

My own cell phone, by the way, possesses appallingly bad communication skills for a device whose business is communicating. It cannot distinguish between the instruction to call voicemail, or to call the person back who left the voicemail. The words at its command are constrained by the display technology and its dimensions. If I use my cell phone as a travel alarm (one of its most useful auxiliary functions) I am bemused by the choice, “snooze on, enable/disable.” Although what is left of the sentence structure implies that it is the snooze I am disabling or enabling , it actually refers the alarm itself. In addition to the risk of falling back asleep and not being re-awoken, I do not wish to disable it at all, just turn it off.

Similar to communications technologies constraining information transfer, there was also the technological paradox of memory devices forcing widespread forgetting. With early memory being expensive, only the most essential information related to an item or a transaction could be stored. Filenames, for example, could not be longer than eight characters. This meant that much of the descriptive sense was stripped away. “Remarks” and “Description” fields were limited in size, to the point where vital information was stripped away because there was no room to store it. Although memory eventually became inexpensive enough that those restrictions are no longer imposed, the legacy is still with us in certain applications. The much-anticipated Y2K problem resulting from the use of only the final two digits in the year field, was an example of this forgetting, one which fortunately was not as serious as anticipated. The “Description” line of bank transfers is often too compressed to make it clear to the Accounts Payable department of whatever corporation receives the transfer which of its internal departments the payment should be credited to. Wire transfer was an early service offered by the telegraph — its terseness is still with us.

E-mail program interfaces also suffered from this compression. For years, the user clicked on the grammatically improbable “Reply All.” It took decades to obtain the preposition that would make it the more sensible “Reply to All.” The icon to open the trash folder is the same icon to move a particular e-mail to the trash folder. One is on the left toolbar; one is on the top toolbar. Even the wording is no help. “Move to trash” is ambiguous without a direct object of the verb. Does that mean “Click here if you want to move [this particular e-mail] to the trash folder”? Or does it mean that the user should click here if the user wants to open the trash folder to find something in it? My e-mail program constantly alerts me that I have new mail, when what it really means is that I have unread mail.

With more and more machines taking up service roles in our economy, it is vital that they communicate well with their human customers. Soda machines — some of the earliest veterans of the service economy — seem to be very good at this. Railroad ticket machines, another veteran service technology, seem to vary in every skill level, possibly because they are handling a more complicated transaction. On my railroad, the order of the prompts and responses is: Rail or Bus?>> origin? >> destination ?>> one way or round trip? >> cash or credit? >> number of tickets? If I were speaking to a human ticket seller using the same syntax as forced by the machine, my request would come out thus: “Train from Metuchen to New Brunswick round-trip credit two.” To which a human ticket seller would probably ask if I’m on some kind of medication. The communication interface of the machine has altered our communication to something not human, not personal, certainly not English. It is syntax dictated by division from largest category (the entire realm of all possible bus and rail tickets) down to the specific (how many do I want at this moment), rather than how we would normally communicate: “Two round-trip tickets to New Brunswick, please.”

Two of the earliest and most important technologies were fire and language. Of the two, there is mounting evidence that language came first and predates our humanness. The word technology itself comes from the Greek meaning “knowing how to use words.”