ALTHOUGH a basic skill in the sense that it is necessary to our very survival, communication is the most nuanced and elegant tool available to humanity. It shapes and enhances every aspect of our highly-collaborative modern lives with verbal and hand-written forms looked over in favour of more technologically advanced options.
It’s been a very long time since keyboards reduced the volume of pens and pencils in our lives – well, our parents’ lives, really – but hardware that requires manual operation is hardly at the cutting edge of word processing any more. Speech recognition software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking is becoming more widely available and, more importantly, used. Its practical use has been recognised by the DSA, which funds Dragon for students who struggle to operate keyboards due to chronic pain or fatigue. Every now and then, you might receive an email signed o with a disclaimer explaining that the message was composed through voice recognition software and therefore is liable to the occasional oddities of transcription programs, and this is going to start happening more regularly – people are adding new technologies to their communication arsenal all the time, a major success for enablement and accessibility movements.
Modern technology has even helped to give voices back to those who have lost the ability to speak and move through paralysing accidents and diseases; Stephen Hawking’s computer-based communication system is perhaps the most famous and advanced public example of this. A brilliant combination of Intel’s open source program ACAT, SwiftKey’s word prediction algorithm and a speech synthesizer constructed by Speech Plus allows the renowned scientist to continue writing books and giving lectures, only needing to twitch his cheek at the right moment to operate all of this technology.
“technology has even helped to give voices back to those who have lost the ability to speak”
Communicative technology should allow everyone to make personal advancements and a ord us all a vast freedom of choice. Free language learning platform Duolingo is a brilliant example of this concept in action; with around 120 million registered users all over the globe, the website and app offer 66 courses spreading over 23 languages, and it isn’t di cult to see why it’s proved so popular. With bright, attractive graphics, straightforward but challenging tasks, a high quality and wide ranging photo database and a completely user-friendly interface, Duolingo boasts that it can help you learn an entirely new language entirely on your own in just ten minutes per day. Foreign languages lose their intimidating mystique when faced hand in wing with Duolingo’s peppy green owl mascot. Best of all, they become totally free to anyone with WiFi access.
Of course, we can’t totally avoid the obvious and suggest that social media is a base technological advancement in communication, lacking the finesse of computer-based communication systems and the ethical compassion of free language learning platforms. Its sheer volume more than compensates for its comparative technical simplicity and profit-driven, advertisement-foccused monitoring of its users’ interests; it is everywhere, and it is totally, radically changing the way human beings communicate. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat et al thrive on the intrinsic voyeurism of the human race, dependent on our desire to see and be seen. It used to be enough that we could post the entire contents on our lives retrospectively, choosing who could and couldn’t see it and picking out our emoji and hashtag-laden captions with the delicate precision of a neurosurgeon five minutes or five days after we took that expertly altered photo of our breakfast. Now, with Facebook’s new Live feature, that’s not enough. Our thoughts, feelings, activities, meals, location – even your toilet habits if you wish – can be shared in real time, sending out a push notification to all of our friends to watch, watch, watch. Communication becomes increasingly about the self and its experiences, guided by strengthened concepts of competitiveness and the notion of being continually observed.
“Communication becomes increasingly about the self and its experiences”
Communication, like technology, is neither base nor elite. Its quality is determined by the social and academic education of its users, and what they then decide to make of it. When the two spheres overlap, the result can be offensively crude, but it can also encourage more cultured discussions and breed informed minds. Facebook’s search tool has a word prediction algorithm just as essential to its navigation as the same technology is to Stephen Hawking’s computer-based communication system; neither is intrinsically more culturally advanced than the other. That choice is entirely down to us. Let’s make it wisely.