The end of communication as we know it


The history book club at the White Flint Borders. Through the 1990s, Borders was a major force in the redefinition of Americans' reading habits, selling millions of books in places where they had once been scarce. (Jonathan Ernst/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Two seemingly unrelated events — Google's launch of its new social network Google+ and the decision by the U.S. Postal Service to target 3,700 of its branches for potential closure — may have more in common than you think. Together, they are representative of the fundamental changes that are taking place within our modern communication networks.

As companies race to adapt to the rapid digitization of the world’s information into 1s and 0s, they are also re-defining how we communicate with each other. Today, we are more connected to each other, and we are connected to more people than we ever thought possible. At a time when nearly all of us are just one degree of separation away from any major politician, celebrity or cultural figure, is it possible that we are more separated than ever before?


U.S. Postal Services shipping materials are displayed at the Bayview Station on July 26, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

It doesn’t take much to see other signs that our communication network is fundamentally changing. Consider the shuttering of the Borders Books chain. Just a few years ago, it’s hard to believe that anyone would have lamented the closing of a “big box” store. But that’s exactly what’s happening, as people realize that Borders was the one place they went to hang out all day, enjoy a cup of coffee and communicate with like-minded readers. Or, take the example of Netflix, which is weaning people off of their red DVD mailers and encouraging customers to stream movies instead. A physical DVD that you pop into your DVD player in the family living room is inherently social. How many times has someone seen a red Netflix envelope on your kitchen table or in your office and asked, “What did you get this week?” The movies you download on your tablet or mobile device are not likely to produce the same personal feedback, and you’re more likely to watch those films alone.

It would be easy, of course, to dismiss all of these changes as simply the unintended consequences of leading a progressive, digital life. Physical locations that sell books, movies or music are all bound to be crowded out by the inexorable growth of the Internet and digital media. Right?

So it’s interesting to consider how Google+ is subtly changing the way we communicate with each other. One of the most popular features of Google+ is Circles, which enables you to segregate all of your friends, family, acquaintances and online colleagues into different groups. You can message them as a whole (as on most social networks), or you can decide which specific Circles receive your messages. At the same time, all of your friends, family, acquaintances and online colleagues can segregate you into their own Circles.


In this file photo taken April 21, 2010, Carleen Ho poses with a Netflix movie she is picking up from her mail box in Palo Alto, Calif. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

The changing nature of the way that we communicate with each other should have network and information theory gurus salivating at the prospect of a new, grand experiment. It makes sense that, as the physical nodes of our communication network begin to disappear forever, we are rushing to fill them with new digital nodes. It is a search for meaning in our social lives. If all this is starting to sound a lot like a digitally updated version of the bestseller Bowling Alone, maybe there’s a reason. As a society, we are moving further and further away from messages and communication, and more towards pure information, delivered to whomever wants to receive it.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read

XREP:PRIMARY NODE

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters