Thursday, May 31, 2012

My dear reader,

And, I do mean 'dear.'  For as I have taken a few moments to create this 'letter' (of sorts) with you in mind, you are taking a moment (or at least a few seconds) to bring me and/or my thoughts to mind.  Thus, the act of letter writing creates a bond across time and space between writer and reader.  

The personal letter has virtue as a bond between people, according to Richard Harper who adds that, 'The paradox here is that letters can create ties only when those ties somehow already exist.  And beyond this, the ties that they create--on the basis of a modest but nevertheless marvelous transcendence of time and space--is of a different nature than the ties that allowed the correspondence in the first place' (Harper, 2010, p. 22).

The practice has evolved over centuries and continues to evolve as we move our letter writing on-line.  Of course, blogs and Facebook pages are different from personal letters.  For example, this blog's readers include 8% from Russia* and I have never been there! Moreover, contemporary forms of connectivity must be viewed in historical context, as Harper does.

'We have seen that those who seem to communicate the most and who seem to be the most afflicted by communications don't seem to complain about it.  Teenagers don't bewail the fact that they have too many messages. The real issue is that for most adults, there is a perception that we are now suffering from an age of communication excess.  This is constructed, in part, by seeing the past in a particular way.  Whatever our current circumstances, we tend to believe that the past was different from our present. We complain that we are busy and overloaded (and one source of that overload is communication), and we therefore portray the past as less busy and not like our today.' ...leading to 'the paradox of the age--our desire for communication and our complaints about its burdens.' (Harper, R. Texture: Human expression in the age of communications overload, MIT Press, 2010, p. 41, 45)

I met up with Richard and his colleagues, Abi Sellen and Managing Director Professor Andrew Blake today at Microsoft Research.  MSR is located just on the edge of campus, and walking there I passed the Betty and Gordon Moore Library (as in Moore's Law) at the University of Cambridge Centre for Mathematics.

Microsoft Research, Cambridge is a 'gee whiz' wonderland, full of wondrous prototypes of communications technologies for the future.   The UK site has played a significant role in touchless computing, which has recently been introduced in medical surgery, where doctors can operate screens without touching them. Other recent projects include digital archiving and personal rememberance.

Abi and Richard and their colleagues have also previously explored computing for older generations.  What they have learned about computing for older people is that, contrary to popular belief and stereotypes, many older people embrace communication in its current forms.  And, they get communication right in understanding its value as a enduring element of what it means to be human. Communicating with others is an honor and requires attention to others. 

This is why older people sometimes marvel at the constant self-broadcasting that some younger people do.  It seems to demonstrate a disregard for the reader and their time to broadcast minutia about oneself with no apparent purpose.  Having said that, many of the older folks interviewed had a healthy perspective and appreciation that communication is changing.  If everyone is in a rush, then maybe short, abbreviated messages make sense for today's world.

As for the intimate bonds between writers and readers of personal messages, in airport lounges and runways, on the train and waiting for class to start, I have seen your smiles when a text message or email arrives from someone 'dear' to you.

With warm regards,

PS. Thanks, Don, for a great video, Susan Cain's TED Talk on the power of introversion and solitude.

*Google Blog Spot statistics: Connectivity Corner readership

US 34%
UK 22%
NZ 16%
Russia 8 %
Australia 7%
France 7%
Germany 2%
Denmark 2%
Ireland 1 %
Latvia 1%

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