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Ten ways communication is changing

Charting the rise of tech-infested communications – from pheromone parties to Narbs

Public scrutiny has tunneled hard on the shallowness of contemporary communication, as depicted in Nicholas Carr’s aptly-named 2010 book The Shallows. Carr writes passionately about humanity’s dwindling attention span, and rightly so – the internet has changed the way we handle information, and the gap between generations, especially regarding activities we deem “social” and entertaining, is only growing more pronounced. Perhaps because of the mind-numbing nature of pop culture’s online lingua franca – memes – general consensus seems to indicate that the internet has had a detrimental effect on our attention spans. This is thanks to mechanical factors like hyperlinks, gifs, embedded video content, and other pretty things that help to add flavor and aesthetics to what would otherwise be a dry information dump. It's no longer sufficient to convey a message – the message has now become inextricably linked to the medium so much that the latter now obscures the former.

Through no fault of their own, the Carrs of the world don’t address the the bold, unrefined new forms of communication that evade categorisation: superdialects, extrasensory communication, and straight-up biotech developments that push our cognitive and linguistic potential into the realm of science fiction. Yes, it sucks that the printed word is threatened by the new frontier of interactive media, but in an ideal world, the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive realms. Technology has simply expanded the tools we have at our disposal, and frankly, we’re all for modular means of everyday communication that allow for nonsense and idiocy. Let's take a look at ten communication trends on the horizon. 


With the anti-authoritarian disaster currently happening in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems prescient to highlight Open Informant, a delightfully blunt art experiment that scrapes the trigger “key” words from personal communications and broadcasts them on a handy e-ink badge. While constant unchecked government surveillance (welcome to the party, Australia!) is settling into a sad little spot between indifference and ubiquity, Open Informant offers up a neo-gonzo method of recontextualizing “threatening” terms (terms which apparently include the words “dock” and “pork”) in a deeply personal space – the body. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see more biotech-fuelled reclamations of human vocabulary (why, why, why must words be delineated as terrorist or civilian?), but for now, Open Informant is a simple expression of dissent. 


Twitter + geolocation is a beautiful thing. Thanks to the insidious social norm of making our private lives as public as possible, researchers have harnessed Twitter as a living archive and monitoring tool to see how slang is born, how it evolves, and how it manifests in various areas of everyday life. Welsh, for example, has been a particularly fascinating language to observe through social media, as built-in geotagging features practically serve up data on a plate.


Technology has helped nudge us back toward localised networks, so that we exist in a borderline Catch-22-esque loop in which the zeitgeist wouldn’t even have happened if the world wide web hadn’t connected us into a super-networked Borg bolus. Prime leaders in this backlash are GoTenna and Nextdoor. The first is a tchotchke that allows smartphones to communicate without a signal (i.e. you can send other GoTenna users texts and GPS coordinates), which presents the slippery tip of a fun iceberg. The device actually works via a smartphone app and Bluetooth and has a range of about 50 miles (vertical distance included). The beauty of this goes beyond natural catastrophes and disaster situations – it is, with the utmost optimism, the beginning of the end of moral majority regulation tactics. Meanwhile, Nextdoor is a new social media platform that focuses on neighborhoods – the catch is that it’s private for verified residents of a certain neighborhood, and gives off a vaguely Stepfordish vibe (especially with local police departments signing up). On the flipside, it’s nice to have a social media network with a real purpose – neighbors helping neighbors, painted with a quasi-trustworthy veneer. Whether you’re pro or con, it looks like there’s a clear dichotomy growing among consumers and “users” (thanks, Tron) about whether we, as a civilization, should embrace or stigmatize the alienating effects of technology.


Narbs is a giggle-inducing neologism for the growing mass of “narrative bits of unstructured data” floating around the interworld. One might think of a space garbage setup in which unwanted narbs orbit slowly around the internet, offering tiny glimpses into their past lives as part of a functional big picture. Jokes aside, narbs have been useful in predicting social and political sentiments across the world and individual behavioral trends that tell a larger, global-scale story. Narbs effectively provide a new breed of data currency that could redefine how we approach data mining systems – each “narb” is different and can be open to interpretation. 


There’s a neat ambient backscatter project going on at University of Washington where scientists are repurposing existing wireless/radio frequency signals into sensor networks and potential power sources. While testing, researchers observed enough throughout to transmit the data equivalent of a text message, which could bring a whole new dimension to the socioeconomics associated with everyday communication. The beauty of ambient backscatter lies in its non-intrusiveness, as it doesn’t affect the function of the existing signals that it so elegantly reflects. Of course, this could lead down a migraine-flecked rabbithole of information security, telecommunications ethics, and other fun legislative topics, but who cares? Science!


The OpenStax initiative is working on an algorithm-enhanced digital textbook that essentially learns how to read its reader. The concept of a self-learning book is common in science fiction (the best example probably being the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in the cyberpunk bildungsroman The Diamond Age), and we’re certainly on the way there with smart-paneled digital comics and intuitive e-readers. While a human touch is still critical for a well-balanced learning environment, the tech behind OpenStax textbooks could ultimately be applied to learning any subject, paving the way for interactive self-tutorials that could revolutionize adult education. Nonetheless, applying OpenStax principles to non-educational books risks producing complacent readers who expect to be spoon-fed information, a dismal trend that can’t afford to be exacerbated. 


The video speaks for itself on this one, but these small Kilobots (mere centimeters wide) can be programmed via infrared light to form shapes (which, of course, includes letters, numbers, etc.) They behave as a “self-organizing swarm” and draw influence from the behavior of cooperative biological entities, with the most obvious example being ants. 


Onto the most basic of all communications as the latest trend for pheromone parties picks up speed. When it comes to pheromones (i.e. biochemicals that affect behavior), we have a whimsical form of extrasensory communication that seems largely cosmetic or fictional. That being said, pheromone parties are pretty much only useful for flings, which isn’t surprising for such a prehistoric pairing tactic where the objective is just sex. However, with a dearth of modern communicative systems built on olfactory signals, it seems about right to start experimenting with the power of smell. A 2012 experiment examined the impact of women’s tears on male sexual arousal. The scientists had “women watch a sad movie scene, collected their tears and placed samples of the unidentified fluid under men’s noses. The tears did not elicit empathy in a standard lab test, but they did reduce the men’s sexual arousal and testosterone levels.” While this makes for great gendered product pitches, the basic idea here is that biochemicals are interesting vehicles for non-verbal communication, even if they take the feelgood agony out of dating. Nonetheless, mirroring the myriad ways in which animals use pheromones, such as marking a trail or signaling for help, olfactory technology could help develop artificially-enabled new ways of receiving information. 


Net Neutrality seems like a beaten old horse, but the importance of a free and open internet cannot be understated in this climate. The internet, which is widely acknowledged to be a miraculous wonder sent from military tech heaven, has unlimited potential to change an individual life. However, while current Net Neutrality activism is mostly active among a certain demographic, authorities’ pushback combined with the unstoppable force of corporate conglomeration suggests that dissent will only get louder and more urgent. With growing interest in artificial intelligence and deep learning, we’re beginning to wade into murky water over what we consider data (hello, robot brains), whether the data should be treated equally, and what kind of factors should be considered in legislating said data. 


When we eventually and inevitably become overwhelmed by constant media bombardment, we’ll still be able to just straight-up write. Right?