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Six thoughts about communication & the future
Six Thoughts About Communication and the Future
Alfred C. Snider
Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics
University of Vermont
Kansas Speech Communication Association Convention
May 13, 1994
Back East some of my colleagues thought it was unusual to be coming to
Kansas for an event such as this. Of course, I am not surprised. Kansas has
everything from an active and vibrant secondary school speech community, to
national champion college debate teams, to one of the finest doctoral
programs in the nation. Kansas can be rightfully proud of its place within
our discipline. Certainly there are things about the "Kansas experience"
which will remain with me forever.
Let me address the theme of your conference: Communication into the 21st
Century. Bill Conboy of KU taught in his futurism class that futurists had a
twisted view of the world because they were almost always middle aged,
well-off, white, males who didn't get enough exercise. I guess that I would
qualify as a futurist then, except for the part about being well-off, as I am
a college professor after all.
This is a very broad theme. If we are to even begin to address this theme,
we need a method. I have borrowed a method from Gregory Bateson.
Gregory Bateson is one of my 20th century heroes. As an anthropologist he
married Margaret Mead and accompanied her on her research in Samoa. Both
being 20th century persons, they divorced, and Bateson went on to become a
psychologist and a psychiatrist, and was important to breakthroughs in
understanding schizophrenia. After that he became a philosopher and a poet.
Anybody who can be a scientist, poet, and communication scholar is certainly
flexible and someone who is always reinventing themselves. I was deeply
influenced by his book Mind and Nature, which struggles with the issues of
how symbol using and misusing human beings fit into the rest of the web of
life. In it, he identifies a number of central concepts which fit into the
category of "What every schoolchild knows." Following Bateson's method, let
us lay out "what every schoolchild knows" about our coming adventure in the
21st century communicative world.
What every schoolchild knows about the way the present will become the
future: this is the easy part and should not take us very long. This is, of
course, an inexhaustive list (school kids know so much!), and if school kids
know this, we must also, so this is nothing new to you, I am sure.
Communication networks are changing -- they are interactive.
Of course, mass media has linked the nations of the globe and we routinely
see news from anywhere on the globe or beyond. This has been true for some
time. However, now the nature of the global information network has become
increasingly interactive. On-line data services, the internet, interactive
cable television all have an important difference. We are no longer obliged
to march to the corporate media mega-drumbeat. Example: in the post war media
age you could select from two or three television networks, and they all
offered the same kind of fare, targeted to the "average" American audience.
You were trapped. Television was the same kind of entertainment offered on
three channels. Hardly a choice. But, with the advent of the video cassette
recorder, the remote control, and multiple channels on cable television we
can: mute or channel graze during advertisements, skip around among forty or
more channels, or select a tape or previously recorded program broadcast at a
different time. Or, switch to a video game on your TV or fire up your
computer and journey into cyberspace. You now have the choice to avoid being
trapped by the corporate media drum beat. Interactivity is the difference,
and it will increase rapidly.
Information becomes wealth and power.
As raw materials and power sources were the currency of the industrial
mercantilist age, so data has become the currency of the information age. One
reason it has become so important is that it is now available to us. The
interactive information networks described above become tools for gaining
access to information. Some examples. In business information has become the
difference between winning and losing. Most major firms have subscriptions to
services such as Dow Jones, Lexis-Nexis, or other pay for use services so
that they can ask the important questions and actually get the answers before
they act. Industrial espionage has become more pronounced than ever....the
struggle is for minds and ideas, not resources and land. In debate, teams
type the keywords from their opponent's case into a data service and
documents full of useful evidence begin pouring out. Coaches mired in the age
of paper evidence now marvel at system messages like: "Your search has been
interrupted because it will retrieve more than 1,000 documents."
The pace of change keeps quickening.
This is not new. It has been happening throughout human history. Our ways of
life used to change over many generations, then over a few generations, and
now our way of life will probably change substantially during one generation.
Certainly the first two factors have played an important role in this:
information and communication factors have accelerated the pace of change.
Example: in early times everyone learned thing for the first time and what
wasn't converted into oral tradition was lost when they died. Then written
language allowed personal memory to transcend time and space -- you could
read your ancestors knowledge or the knowledge of those far away. The
printing press accelerated this process so that the personal memories of many
people from long ago were more easily accessible to you, after all, papyrus
scrolls and stone tablets don't make good mass lending libraries. World
travel and communication again shortened our reach to other knowledge. Then
mass communication networks opened up windows to global experiences. Now, not
only are the windows to the knowledge of the world open, but you can select
the window you want or even dive right into those windows. Each of these
steps took progressively less and less time. The last leap, between the mass
media breakthrough and the interactive communication breakthrough took about
50 years, whereas the jump from writing to printing took thousands. It is
now so much a part of our culture that even American voters, not known for
their high levels of critical analysis when studied during election time,
vote for a ticket which asks to lead the country because the new reality is
"Change," and that reality is unmistakable. But, let us not be surprised that
the American public believes this, because, after all, this is something
that, as Bateson would say, "every schoolchild knows."
Knowing is one thing, but understanding is different.
It is not very illuminating to say that our journey into the 21st century
must cope with new communication networks, the information explosion, and the
fast pace of change. Every schoolchild knows this. What is illuminating, and
this is the advice I took from Bateson, is to take what every schoolchild
knows and discover what these things mean to us and to the communities we are
a part of. Well, these are the basic things that this schoolchild knows, and
I want to share with you some of my thoughts about what these mean to the
community I am a part of -- communication.
Why do I get to predict? I am not Jeanne Dixon and I'm not trying to sell
you magic lottery numbers, so I hope you will afford me a little latitude in
spelling out some of these implications. But, I have not always been wrong.
At the ceremony honoring Prof. Strickland as the National Debate Coach of
the Year, a previous honoree Melissa Wade of Emory University reminded me of
something I had told her in 1972 at the end of our senior year as college
debaters. I apparently had predicted that "Someday soon, debaters will be
taking small electronic devices with them to debate tournaments, and they
will use them to call over phone lines to libraries and databases from which
they will extract evidence to use against their opponents the next day....or
maybe even later that day." Well, that was a pretty good prediction for 1972.
Certainly better than my prediction that my partner and I would go 7-1 at
nationals, or a zillion wrong predictions since then. But hey, a few accurate
predictions work for Jeanne Dixon. In any case, as I sat in an auditorium in
Maryland waiting to judge the final round at our national tournament, I saw
the Emporia State debaters taping down and organizing evidence about Kansas
State's affirmative case which they had gained access to during the semifinal
round, I realized that it had been a good prediction.
That means that there is some small probability that what I am about to say
may be insightful. Hopefully, it will at least be thought provoking, and at a
minimum, I hope it will not lead to indigestion.
There are three implications I see for the communication community of which
we are all a part.
Orality will become increasingly important.
Chided, derided, neglected, oral communication will become more important in
the 21st century.
Voice already dominates communication. The telephone guarantees that. Voice
command technology will mean that our voices will become our tools for
traveling the information supersluiceway. Telephones will become visual and
our computers and our telephones will merge. We will talk to each other and
to our machines.
Even our written communication through new networks has an oral quality to
it. Email and internet messages use various devices to indicate facial
expressions. :) When you communicate with someone live and on line it is far
more like a chat than an exchange of letters.
Oral communication is essential in a global community. The oral experience
is something common to cultures, far more so than their written conventions.
Most of the world has a business tradition that emphasizes personal contact
with specific individuals. Economic, political, and cultural global relations
have to be "talked out."
Oral communication skills are a precursor and prerequisite for success. In a
study of 1500 personnel directors, oral communication skills were shown to be
the #1 factor in whether interviewees got hired, and then the #1 factor in
whether new hires got promoted, and then the #1 factor in managerial success.
Our discipline will be more important than ever. The information age is the
age of communication, and our field can be ready to take advantage of it.
Those who wish to participate in our society in ways beyond factory work and
manual labor must be orally competent. If our coming world community is to be
a peaceful and productive one, its citizens must be people who can think and
then communicate what they have to say.
2. The fracture of knowledge will be reversed.
By the fracture of knowledge I mean our current and past penchant for
breaking up knowledge into various disciplines and departments. Each has
their own perspective, each speaks to itself and not to other fields, and the
route to success is through mastery of one small field and its ideas. A
Renaissance person would try to master all knowledge, a 20th century person
could not attempt such a thing. A 21st century person, however, will not try
to master all knowledge, but will deal with ideas and concepts from many
different fields as need and interest dictate.
Access to information has meant that it is possible for us to cross over
from our discipline to others.
The rapid pace of change means few fields are static, they are changing and
evolving. Professors now move from one department to another, or have joint
appointments, far more often. Ivory towers have become modular condos with
more mix and watch possibilities.
A less spacious world means more dynamic interaction. As the world grows
closer together and a bit more crowded, communication, economics, the
environment, and politics are more closely related than ever. Any
examination of the major disadvantages argued by debate teams in the last
five years makes this pretty obvious.
In the coming world I described in my first list, in a complex and rapidly
changing but interactively accessible world, the most important skills will
be those of overview -- of Gestalt imagery. A vision blocked by disciplinary
blinders will be a clouded one.
Departments will change. In higher education the next ten years will see an
almost complete turnover in faculty, and that will be an ideal time to reform
the illogical and arbitrary department structure. Speech Communication
programs may find themselves in new and unique relationships with colleagues
who used to be in places like English, theater, social psychology,
marketing, business, political science, etc.
The role of educational institutions will change. While previously the focus
was on having students memorize and recite, the new focus will be on how to
do and use. Why memorize what is available to all in a convenient data base?
Instead, the focus will be on teaching students how to tell the difference
between relevant and irrelevant data, or how to understand and resolve
conflicting data. Already students want to know, "What can I do with what I
learn?" When most Americans have a college degree, the question will be what
can you do with it? This focus on interactive skills, critical thinking, and
information management are ideal grounds for a new and more interdisciplinary
approach to teaching communication.
Training for educators will change. Educators, especially in our field, will
need to know how to evolve and develop themselves over time. Future educators
will need to be more familiar with other and possibly related disciplines.
Our journals, now largely divided by discipline, will become reorganized to
reflect a more multidisciplinary focus.
Our educators will be doing more work with educators from other
One of the benefits I look forward to from this end to the fracture of
knowledge is that the iron rule of the "expert" may begin to wane. We can't
understand it all, so we have to rely on the area expert. Well, now it is
clear that the expert in one area may not give us the right answer for our
well being. With the new access to the information network, we all must
become interdisciplinary non-experts in order to make our own decisions.
3. We must be willing to remake ourselves.
If ten years from now we are the same teachers we are today, we will likely
be highly mediocre, and perhaps unemployed. Personal and professional
development will be extremely important.
Rapid change means we cannot stand still. While in previous times we could
learn X and then teach X (case closed), now we will need to learn X and teach
X, then learn Y, and then teach X & Y, and on and on.
Erosion of disciplinary barriers means that as the walls come down, we can
find new and exciting opportunities by growing and developing in new
Change in educational organization will mean that if we wish to prosper in
the new learning environment we must be willing to adapt and change. Example:
recently at a major state university in the South the criminal justice
program was eliminated. Because the program was eliminated, tenured
professors where given pink slips. But not all. The professors who had done
interdisciplinary work were retained and relocated in other departments. I
see this as an accelerating trend. Don't fence yourself in.
Develop yourself and look for a niche. If we invested half the energy into
looking for new opportunities that we currently use for defending our turf we
would never lack for firm ground to stand on.
Make yourself valuable. Find the needs of your institution and your student
population and then work to remake yourself so that you can address these
needs. This evolution will make you not only productive and satisfied, but
one of the most valuable parts of your institution.
Use the facilities available to you: tech, data, cross disciplinary work
with other colleagues. Be first among your colleagues to try something new,
and then help them adapt to it. Become a facilitator for the change which is
coming, not a barrier against it.
People in our field are well suited to such a role. The essence of
communication is having the critical skill to have a thought, and then the
practical skill to convey it to others. We are saturated with an ethic of
free speech which makes us open and at least moderately tolerant to new
Certainly Gregory Bateson is a good model for us. During his life he had the
courage to move from anthropologist, to psychiatrist, to philosopher, to
poet, exploring as much as he could of the breadth and depth of the human
experience. Let us not be afraid to do the same. Let us look around us,
assess the needs we see, and apply what we are and what we have to meet those
needs. As members of the family of communication, we have an opportunity to
take the inevitable change before us, change which is based on the evolving
nature of information and communication, and guide it for our communal
benefit instead of merely being victims of its overwhelming power.
Thank you for your attention this evening and your warm welcome during this
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