We don't talk any more - is technology harming communication?

  • 29 December 2011
  • From the section Technology
  • comments
Man texting, woman on mobile
Is talking face to face being undermined by technology?

In a world of tweets and texts, email and instant messaging, are we communicating any better?

Or is modern technology making us lazy about actually talking to each other, with damaging effects on both business and society?

This was the issue that the Today programme guest editor Sir Victor Blank asked me to investigate. Having only had a brief email explaining what he wanted, I was still rather unclear about his thesis - until I got him on the phone for a chat. Which sort of made his point...

"Technology is a massive aid to communication," he told me, "but if it takes away regular face-to-face or direct conversations, then you lose something of the softer edges."

Sir Victor, the former chairman of Lloyds TSB, seemed particularly concerned about the impact that modern methods were having in the business world, with executives firing off emails in anger, and making deals they might later regret, rather than seeing the whites of the eyes of their counterparts in face-to-face negotiations.

That was a concern shared by one person Sir Victor suggested as a possible interviewee. The former Times editor Lord Rees-Mogg told me that if he were in the newspaper business today he would of course use the most modern methods. But he felt that many people could become addicted to email and social networking. "I do notice that emails are often fired off without any real consideration - they're also much ruder than more considered communications, so I think they're inferior."

Perhaps surprisingly, that view might get a sympathetic hearing at the technology firm Atos, which has decided to phase out email as an internal communications tool. "Email has become the easy way to communicate but also the lazy way," says Rob Price, the UK managing partner of Atos.

Anyone who has arrived at their desk to find that they have been copied in on dozens of internal emails of no relevance, will say amen to that. But Atos is not rejecting modern communication techniques, simply recognising that a new generation already thinks email is old hat. Its new recruits arrive from university accustomed to instant messaging and social networks - far more rapid methods of communication.

Another major corporation has recognised that forcing its employees to be "always on" has its limits. Volkswagen's Works Council has decreed that the German firm's Blackberry server should stop sending emails to employees thirty minutes after their shift ends.

But what I really needed was someone who had taken an objective, scientific look at the way we use communications technology - and Dr Monica Bulger of the Oxford Internet Institute fitted the bill.

Far from dumbing down the way we communicate, technology had made us smarter, she told me. In particular, executives like Sir Victor Blank had been made more literate by the arrival of computers and word processing. "Prior to word processors, executives would dictate messages to secretaries and speak on the phone. So the use of technology has improved literacy."

Dr Bulger conceded that face-to-face communication was important, but said it also had its dangers: "I've sat in meetings where people have said things they shouldn't have." Whereas email gave more time for considered reflection: "You can do the count to ten rule and think a bit before you respond."

Overall, the academic's conclusion was that the different technologies now available to us were helping not hindering communication. But she conceded that there was an issue with what she described as "cognitive overload or data deluge."

Tell me about it. As someone who is addicted to these technologies, I still find myself oppressed by the sheer quantity of emails, phone messages and social media activity that need to be dealt with each day. I can't imagine how I would do my job without tools like Twitter. Yet I sometimes wonder whether I communicated better 30 years ago.

In my student days, before the age of the mobile or email, we used to simply drop in on people or bump into them in the street - but still managed to have rich and varied social lives and make enduring friendships.

So I decided to go back to university to give the final word to members of today's Facebook generation. I knocked on the door of my son's student flat in Oxford and asked him to go and get some friends from next door - he immediately reached for his phone to text them, rather than walk a few steps.

But once we'd gathered them together, the students proved to have quite a nuanced view of modern communication. One of them hardly ever used social networks and said he just bumped into people in the street; another mentioned the danger of becoming obsessed with Facebook at the expense of face-to-face communication.

And a third summed it up for me: "You use social networking and modern technology to arrange meeting people face to face, when otherwise you might not see them for a few weeks - you might not bump into them." We agreed that new communication technologies provided an addition, not a replacement, for traditional means.

So what shall I tell Sir Victor? It seems to me that his concerns about the impact of email, social networking and instant messaging on our ability to communicate, are somewhat exaggerated. But maybe we need to meet face to face to talk it through...