Technologies of Communication: STS Faculty Reflect

communication, Technology

This is the beginning of a short series in which several STS faculty share elements of science and technology that they find intriguing or meaningful. This opening post features reflections from Evan Thomas, Erica Haugtvedt, and Olivia Burgess on communication technologies. Their choices highlight both the ways we connect with each other and the role that technology plays in that connection.

Evan Thomas – Assisted Reading Technologies

Anyone with experience raising young children has encountered some of the assistive technologies for reading available now. Kid-friendly miniature electronics seem to suggest that children can be taught to read by machine – or at minimum, these technologies save caregivers the tedium of reading through a favorite book for the thousandth time. And furthermore, these assistive technologies (such as Text-to-Speech) are breaking through to grown-up readers interested in ease or ability of access.

Image of a Speak & Spell toy, bright orange and yellow with a full alphabet keyboard and electronic screen.
Speak & Spell toys became popular in the 1980s and have recently been returned to the shelves as part of nostalgia for current parents’ childhood toys.

Even so, some important aspects of reading are lost to machine-readers. The work of the scholar Walter Ong suggests to us that assisted reading technologies may not be able to deliver on at least two of the qualities we most care about in reading.

  • Empathetic and participatory listening: Oral storytellers tend to check in with their audiences, pose questions or riddles, and bring oral stories closer to the human lifeworld. Sadly, these forms of interaction can never be recorded.
  • Copiousness: Human-based oral cultures tend to be much more copious than vision-based cultures of literacy, which is to say oral cultures can be repetitive in a way that builds up complex meanings. Think, for example, of passages of repetition and redundancy in your favorite poems and songs that you know by heart: their meaning grows with each retelling.

In HUM 200, I invite students to research media technologies like assistive reading and to ask what is lost when we take the human out of the humanities.

Erica Haugtvedt – E-Readers

It’s very easy to underestimate the versatility of plain paper books.  Paper is easy on the eyes, and it’s fairly durable, lightweight, and portable. The affordances of paper become clearer when you think of the development of e-ink technology. Maybe most of us don’t use a dedicated e-reader anymore (if you ever did), but e-readers were developed to optimize digital reading. Having a dedicated device that doesn’t do much other than reading helps you avoid distraction, while the screen is matte and high contrast so that you can bear to read over long periods of time and the device is small with robust battery life. Has anyone tried to read a lot on a regular computer screen? We all have, and we all know it’s terrible. An e-reader is a lot more comfortable, and you can carry hundreds of books around in the space of one book! The trade-offs, though, are still fairly steep compared to regular paper books. Digital Rights Management (DRM) software means that the distribution of e-books is much more tightly controlled than physical books. Want to lend a physical book to your friend? No problem, easy peasy. But lending an e-book is a huge headache of legal property rights, not only for individuals but for libraries as well. E-readers allow us to search books easier, highlight and make notes, and transfer these notes across devices. But I wouldn’t say they’re “superior” to physical books, especially considering the limitations of Digital Rights Management. E-readers illuminate how every technology exists in an ecosystem of desires and constraints.

Image of two Kindle models.
Two Kindle e-readers, showing their e-ink screens and emphasis on mimicking the look of monochrome book pages.

Olivia Burgess – Email

When the first piece of electronic mail traveled from one MIT computer to another in 1965, it was probably a moment for cheers and high-fives. Fast forward to 2022, and the notification of another email hitting our inbox is more likely to make us groan and cringe.

On average, people at work get 121 emails a day! If you’re like me, then you enjoy the benefits of email but also struggle with some of the stresses of managing dozens of emails on a daily basis. The very tool meant to improve efficiency can sometimes be our biggest distraction. That’s why Merlin Mann came up with the Inbox Zero Method and popularized the idea of a near-mythical inbox free of emails.

Image of a stylized computer and phone with yellow envelopes flying out of it.

Why is email often the source of so much stress?

It could be that the speed of the communication makes us feel like our response should also be fast, causing us to drop what we’re doing at any time and answer emails. Imagine getting a letter in the mail. Would you feel the need to dash off a response as fast as possible, or would you feel more relaxed and thoughtful in forming a response? The speed in which the communication happens directly shapes the urgency we may feel in responding.

It may seem like email will be around forever, but inevitably something new will take its place, introducing a whole new set of advantages and disadvantages into our lives. It’s important to remember that technology is not value-neutral. If we value speedy and efficient communication technologies, then we start to expect humans themselves to be speedy and efficient. The more aware we can be about the fuzzy line between technology and human values, the better we can make decisions about our future.

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