Voicing Our Preference

Opinion: Text media are so '00s; people would still rather talk than type.

In any scene from any "Star Trek" episode or movie, the most futuristic things we see are the wireless communication devices. Who needs a starship when you can just give the order, "On screen!"—and watch, by unexplained means, what would otherwise take several light-years flight to observe?

Consider those little badges on every Starfleet crew members uniform. They make it possible to know where anyone is and to talk to that person anytime from anywhere—but you never see anyone taking off his or her badge to stick it in a battery charger.

The biggest difference between movie life and real life isnt perfect hair; its implausibly reliable wireless technology. Even in present-day stories, with no science-fiction elements, screenplay writers and directors lubricate the wheels of narrative with deus ex machina mobility.

Whether its a spy in an underground fortress or a president sabotaging the efforts of hostage takers on Air Force One, no one ever has to ask, "Can you hear me now?" Your willing suspension of disbelief—often crucial to movie enjoyment—may become badly disrupted if you let yourself notice that people are communicating too well, for too long, under much too imperfect conditions.

When something like this happens so often, and we all so readily agree to ignore it, there must be some pervasive and deeply meaningful fantasy fulfillment going on. Could it be that despite our (pretended?) interest in e-mail and text-messaging technologies, wed really rather talk? Is voice, in fact, the real killer app?

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Sure, weve seen high adoption rates for undeniably useful text-based tools, but they pale in comparison to the market penetration of cellular phones. At year end—according to approximate averages of what look to me like credible and reasonably comparable forecasts—there will be about 2 billion people in the world using wireless voice communication; there will be only half that number using the Internet.

Moreover, I suspect if you offered most people a choice between Star Trek-class wireless voice or telepathic linkage to the Web, most of them would take the former. From the Internet, we get information, but from voice conversations, we make commitments and build relationships. Industrial civilization was built on those social foundations—life as we know it would collapse much more quickly from loss of communications between people than from a return to old-fashioned limits on communications between devices and databases.

You may doubt me, but lets suppose Im right. Suppose its true, in general, that at any given time wed really rather have an immediate conversation—including all the needed parties—than send out an e-mail and wait for answers.

Suppose were kidding ourselves that e-mail is wonderful because its asynchronous, when we really dont like being forced to put up with asynchronicity at all—but weve forgotten that theres any other way to get peoples attention.

If we admitted this preference to ourselves, how would it change the technologies that we adopt and even the ways that we arrange our office spaces?

Wed probably invest in wireless headsets for the office phone system, as aggressively and cheerfully as we currently invest in Wi-Fi for laptops. Wed redesign offices to accommodate peoples need to have a private conversation, should the need arise, no matter where they are in the building—instead of needing to return to their personal space.

Wed integrate voice and e-mail systems so that people could easily decide, in the middle of a conversation, to capture an audio clip and have it e-mailed to both participants—thereby combining our genetic wiring to be good conversationalists with e-mails ability to preserve an audit trail and to bring other participants into an exchange.

That sounds to me like something we can actually start to do, right now—and we may find, in 20 or 30 years, that those turn-of-the-century decades of e-mail and texting look as quaint as Western Union telegrams look today.

Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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