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Google Wave = Thoughtless Communication?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

I’m a big fan of the slow food movement, which is rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary. Years ago, when I first read about the Terra Madre (the meeting of food producers in Italy), I was both intrigued and inspired by the commitment shown to taking care over where the food we eat comes from; how it is produced, how it is prepared and how it is consumed.

Food is of great personal interest to me, as is language, and watching the launch presentation for Google Wave recently got me thinking about how easily debased language can become, and what great value there is in taking care with its use, its preparation and its consumption.

The part of the presentation that triggered these thoughts was a little bit - that caused a ripple of spontaneous applause - about what happens when two (or more) people are involved in a Google Wave “conversation” at the same time. Up to this point, I had been interpreting what I was seeing as a slightly enhanced version of Skype, but the part of the demonstration that got the applause was that, with Wave, you don’t need to wait whilst someone is typing an instant message - you see them, live, actually typing it, character by character. The exciting sales line associated with this was that, instead of waiting for a reply, “you can start formulating your own reply before [X] is done typing hers”.

Now, I’m not (too much of) a technophobe, or (too) resistant to developments in styles and formats of communication - indeed, I actually get quite excited about the use of these new formats, and what they do to our understanding and knowledge. But one thing that does cause worry is the focus on speed rather than quality - there may be times where the pleasure of speed surpasses the effect of the drop in quality, but, as with food, the creeping effect of convenience can become irresistible, and the longer term effects unnoticed until it is (nearly) too late.

Part of my pleasure in conversation is the opportunity to think. The opportunity to mentally chew a new idea or perspective, to absorb the flavours and nutrients, and begin the process of integrating them into my own. I’ll never forget, for example, a conversation I had with an old friend in a Cambridgeshire pub in 1998 - we hadn’t seen each other for a few years, and I’d forgotten just how good a really good conversation can be, when all parties are listening, considering, and integrating new ideas before responding to them.

The principles of Socratic dialogue (answering with questions, seeking to understand what has been said and the implications of it, the recognition of underlying assumptions, and a genuine search for truth) require that conversations, at times, emphasise quality over speed, and I’d hate for a drive for speed and immediacy to drown out the beauty of slow, careful, considered and thoughtful communication.

I’m excited about Google Wave - it appeals to the rather nerdy side of me. I love experimenting with new technologies, new ways of doing things, and new ways of communicating. However, I want to embrace these whilst retaining respect and love for the old ways - the new is an addition to, not a replacement of, the old.

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In a later blog, I’m planning to consider the impact of the increasing speed and immediacy of communication on different people. For example, am I particularly concerned about this because my Myers Briggs reports show a strongly defined preference for introversion? How would people with preferences for extraversion and introversion differ in their view of these new communication methodologies?

Your thoughts, as always, welcome.


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