Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

A Thought on Communication

A thought; a bit of mushy futurism: that the next generation of connected humans, the progeny of digital natives, will probably not communicate with remote others in the way we did. This will have interesting consequences.


We’re presently just barely on the cusp of widespread one-to-one video calling. We’ve had access to this technology through somewhat awkward and computer-tethered means for the past few years: iChat, Skype, etc. Assuming you’re in range of a wifi network, you can video call with a person around the world from a device that fits in the palm of your hand today.

Video calling is still very much a novelty, though. Even people who use video conferencing daily for work haven’t quite figured out the etiquette around it. If you’re working with someone remotely over a video call, do you leave it on all day? Do you have a robot bearing your image wander around the office you’re not at? Consensus suggests that it’s definitely okay to video call your partner while, say, on a business trip, but is it okay to FaceTime your buddy when you just want to see if he wants to get a beer? Are group video chats an effective replacement for meetings or a disorienting waste of time? Do we want “telepresence” with all of its trappings, or just a phone call with a moving picture attached?

If you’re a post-pubescent person in a connected part of the world, you’ve been raised in an communications environment that’s presently text-centric, with voice communication trailing behind in importance. If you’re about 30 or a bit older, you might have experienced Usenet and the heyday of IRC. If you’re in your late twenties, like me, you probably remember AOL or Prodigy chat rooms giving way to ICQ and AIM, and all the while the everpresence of email. Right now, you probably use Facebook, and maybe Twitter. Your parents have learned to use SMS. You’ve probably flamed or been flamed; trolled or been trolled; posted anonymously or in disguise or maybe even as someone you shouldn’t have been pretending to be.

Some of us might feel that our text-based presentation of ourselves is better than the actual us: faster, wittier, more daring, more aggressive, maybe even more sexual. Whether you type in complete sentences or cutesy-curt txt-speak, there’s no denying that the written word, delivered electronically and near-immediately, is a special sort of social prothesis. As more dating and courtship moves online, the individuals who can best wield this prothesis are finding the optimal mates. Needless to say, the necessity of good writing skills for business has only increased.

Our text-based environment, with its countless abbreviations and emoticons and bits of slang, has come us to define us culturally. For those suffering RSI, the constant output and input streams of text have even come to define us physically.

This is where we are today. In short, text rules, and if you can write effectively (as distinct from writing well), you rule too.


Imagine twenty years from now. Your children, if you have them, are grown. By the time your children were of schooling age, plentiful bandwidth converged with improved software and hardware to make multi-way video calling a pervasive reality. Every device one would want to use for communication has this capability: computers, mobiles, game consoles. Audio software is capable of producing an accurate searchable transcript of your every word, even in noisy environments. Synthesis has improved to give all machines natural voices to speak with.

Your children have never known a world dominated by communication via digitally presented text. Sure, people still read and write, but communicating with your peers by text is now considered archaic. Video calling another individual is de rigueur; group video chats are equally common. People dive in and out of group video conversations with ease. Three-dimensional presentation of these conversations is not uncommon, though maybe still a luxury in the developing world.

One’s sense of place is fundamentally altered by pervasive video communication. “Here” begins to be a fuzzy concept and “when” is next up in the firing line. These once-concrete notions are supplanted by more important concerns: who, what, and why.

This world of pervasive video necessitates beauty. It values physical poise, wardrobe, and the tenor of one’s voice. Everyone becomes a newscaster reporting on her life. Video podcasts and YouTube channels only begin to foreshadow the social impact. DailyBooth and Chatroulette are mere ripples off the tide that brings these changes. There will be a new superficiality, stunning in its omnipresence, dwarfing even the shallowest points of the previous centuries, kindling for new and old industries alike. But then, there will be depth there too. We will know transcendently unifying experiences via this technology.

The aesthetics of the human face and body will be reevaluated within the context of streaming digital mobile video. Filtering and other realtime edits to the video stream will be commonplace; your use of them will connote your confidence, class, and background. Deaf persons will be aided by readily available closed-captioning and cameras capable of reading lips and translating sign language. Blind persons may be disadvantaged in a way they were not by the advent of telephony, but one hopes technology will compensate in unforeseen ways.


Your children will know a very different way of relating to people who are not physically present. It will change the way they work, maintain friendships, relate to family members, fall in love, and experience the world. It will change their sense of self, and self-worth. It may be a boon, or it may be harmful. Most likely, it’ll be a bit of both, because after all, it’s still about people.

My generation will be at something of a loss when this new world comes about. In my life, I’ve been rewarded for communicating effectively online via text. I’m a reasonably effective verbal communicator, but not nearly as good as I’ll need to be to compete with the telepresence-native adults that the children of today will grow up to be.

Today’s digital natives will be tomorrow’s telegraph operators. The only way to survive will be to understand the impact of pervasive video communication before it sweeps us under our keyboards.

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