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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Are We Killing Communication? - Forbes

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Recently, my teenage daughter and I were cleaning out a closet in our house when we came across my old pager, the trusty communication technology of 1989. Of course, my daughter had no idea what this device did, so I explained how it worked. When I finished, she said: “Let me get this straight. This device would tell you someone was trying to reach you but it wouldn’t tell you who that person was or what they wanted? And if you wanted to find out, you couldn’t use the device to call them back?” I said, yes, that was correct. To which she replied, “That seems like the dumbest technology ever. Why would anyone even want that?”

Over the past 15 years, I have studied communication around the world and noticed distinct shifts in the way people send and receive information — mostly due to technology. In a recent TEDx session I delivered in Shanghai, I discussed how human beings have two basic desires when it comes to communication: to understand and to be understood. Unfortunately, neither of those things can happen when technology becomes a barrier.

While the pager was the communication technology of the early 90s, today there are more than 5 billion cell phones in the world. This new technology means we interact with people in different ways. One study found we engage with our cell phones — tapping, swiping, typing — an average of 2,617 times a day. And if we are that glued to our screens, it is safe to assume we are not being fully present with our children, spouses or co-workers.

One of the biggest meeting distractors is cell phones. Limiting or eliminating the temptation to check cell phones during meetings is a good idea. According to a study by Adrian Ward et al. of the University of Texas at Austin, your ability to think and concentrate is significantly reduced when your phone is within reach — even when it is switched off. According to the study’s researchers: “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.” The ability to listen actively is essential for anyone hoping to build rapport and develop relationships with others. But technology is filling the world with distractions and this affects how we communicate and connect with one another.

Giving someone your complete and undivided attention is essential if you want to truly connect with them. But modern distractions such as text messages and other alerts don’t help. Research conducted by the University of California at Irvine found that the average worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes and five seconds. And these interruptions, whether they are phone calls, e-mails or texts, can cause the worker to take an average of 25 minutes to get back to their original task. Distractions and interruptions also affect the quality of work that takes place. Researchers at Michigan State found that interruptions of less than three seconds doubled the rate of errors on a task.

Think of your communication like an archer thinks of a target: Your message is the arrow, and the goal you hope to accomplish with your message is the bullseye. Technology is going to continue to change the ways we communicate with each other. Artificial intelligence, data and nanotechnology are rapidly changing the way we share information and ideas.

Researchers at MIT were recently able to create a device called AlterEgo that can read a person’s mind with 92% accuracy. The device works by detecting brainwaves and picking up signals triggered when you say words in your head. While this technology may offer great potential for someone who has lost the ability to speak because of an illness or disease, there is the potential for alternative uses for this technology that should worry us all.

So is all of this new technology enhancing or destroying our communication? In the future, how will we know if the speaker we see on television is real or created through artificial intelligence? How will we hit the bullseye with our communication in the year 2030? Or imagine if this MIT AlterEgo device gets smaller and fits into your pocket, or if the person across from you now has the ability to read every private thought that passes through your mind before you speak a word.

To handle this minefield of advanced technology and human communication, we will all need to do two things very well moving forward. First, we will need to be mindful and moral about how we use technology. This means being diligent about not spreading information that is fake or false. We will also need to hold our leaders to account. When those in positions of power make statements or assertions that are demonstrably false, we need to draw attention to these untruths and treat them as unacceptable. We will also need to be smart and skeptical about the information that we receive and how we validate it. Knowing where your information is coming from and making sure it is reliable will be essential aspects of effective communication.

Are we killing communication? The answer is: not yet. But technology should enhance, not replace, human interactions. And without changing how we communicate and use this new technology, the future could be an even more challenging landscape to navigate. Remember, the archer doesn’t blame the target when they miss. To improve your aim, improve yourself.



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