With thousands of people getting connected through modern devices every day, existing assumptions and definitions of communication will no longer hold.BHASKAR GHOSE
WE have been told over and over again by breathless commentators and media analysts that this is the information age. Television programmes unveil a bewildering array of new gadgets - cell-phones that take photographs, play music and now download and send email. In other words, they are actually personal computers, doing all that a PC does, and what they are not doing now they will, in the not-too-distant future. All this besides its primary function of enabling two people to talk to each other, or, to be more accurate, two or more people to talk to one another, simultaneously if necessary.
But what the reinvented cell-phone brings is something more than diverting new gadgetry; it is ushering in a new era that takes in and enfolds the PC, cell-phones and television, an era of inter-activity. You will not only talk to one another but soon see one another as you talk, and talk to one or many people in a manner that virtually eliminates the benefits of personal presence through your PC or cell-phone. Its implications for the world of commerce and finance, of industry and even governance are so overwhelming as to be difficult to grasp at once.
While one can marvel at this new revolution that is spreading across the world, one cannot but also wonder at the effect it will have on communication as we know it. I do not mean just telephonic communication; I mean communication as a whole, including mass communication. This has always meant a more or less one way mode of communication; at big public rallies, by television and radio, through newspapers and journals, communication has for the most part been to `the masses', the `audience', to viewers or readers. The people in general have been recipients of information of all kinds - news, entertainment, live shows, sports and everything else that the instruments of mass communication have given them.
There has been some reaction from the people, true. We have had, for some time, letters to the editors of newspapers and journals, and we have had live shows on television where studio audiences have been asked to participate. We now have more and more television programmes which invite viewers to phone in, or send email reactions to issues being discussed in the programme, but all these responses are controlled - not in the sense that they are censored, but by being grouped into simplified responses, like yes and no, or agree and do not agree.
Even at public rallies organised by political parties there have, at times, been responses that are either carefully organised, in the manner in which Mark Antony organised the crowd when he spoke to them after the assassination of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's brilliant play, and at other times responses that have not been expected, like a shower of rotten eggs and vegetables at a speaker who was not someone the assembled people found very pleasing.
This was what reaction or audience response meant for a very long time, and this was built into the very concept of mass communication. But now all that will have to be revisited; it will no longer do to confine mass reaction or simplify it. Not when every person has a cell-phone, or is able to respond via a PC or a laptop. In fact, as this kind of connectivity grows, the need for mass meetings of audiences in the studio, of invited email and telephonic responses will become obsolete. The formats of television programmes will have to change, as all these conventional reactions give way to the emerging era of interactivity, where communicators are not those who write and speak, not editors and columnists and television presenters, but are virtually all those who are connected to one another.
The nature of what it will eventually become, going by the trends one sees, is the kind of interactivity there is in, say, the world of international banking, where transactions are taking place via the new information superhighways continually. No one is talking to a group of passive listeners in that world; everyone is talking to everyone else, everyone is listening to everyone else. And that is what one can see coming to other areas of social intercourse - political, economic and, inevitably, in the process of governance.
The difference that will almost certainly be a part of this new interactivity as far as governance is concerned is that political leaders will find it increasingly difficult to use mass rallies and massive public meetings to get their views across. Interactivity will end that, as thousands and thousands get connected every day to one another. Communicating a political leader's views will become, in time, a matter of argument, rather than of fiery speeches.
Not that this will happen overnight; it will take years, even decades, for such changes to come about and to become substantial enough to make a difference to existing modes of communication. But the process has started, and as the years pass, and what appear to be at present no more than diverting additions to cell-phones and computers become a part of the world of communication, it will become clearer and clearer that existing assumptions and definitions will no longer hold; not in the perspective of the next 20 or 30 years.
The redefinition has been easy enough in the world of finance and commercial activity; but even there connectivity is sought to be kept one-way insofar as people - customers, clients, people at large - are concerned. What used to be a `complaints cell' in offices, where such things existed, has been reborn as automated computerised responses. Many of us have encountered these infuriating, exasperating systems, where a disembodied voice - very cheerful and pleasantly modulated - takes you from one step to another, requiring you to dial or press various numbers on your keypad or telephone and after an age you discover you have ended up where you started, and need to start all over again.
It is a matter of time before such systems also collapse before the wave of interactivity. Those commercial houses, whether it is a bank or a service organisation, now sheltering comfortably behind them must know that technology will make it possible to circumvent these automated shields and bring them face to face with people, who will not be content with being bombarded with advertising and smooth computerised talk, but will demand to be heard; and they will be, whether the glib, fast talking MBAs in various offices like it or not. The password may well be a cell-phone number, and ferreting it out may become a relatively simple affair. There is, apparently a device already being marketed that makes it impossible for a third person to overhear what two people are saying to each other; all that will be heard by that third person will be a meaningless babble, and that is what the software is called - Babble. Is it going to be so surprising, then, if new software allows users to circumvent computerised responses to a call? And to allow the communication of views and opinions between two people equally?
Again, this is not something about to happen tomorrow. It will certainly take decades to be widespread enough to make a difference, but if that induces a sense of comfort it must be understood that that comfort is only temporary. When the change begins to be felt it will need responses that make it possible to live with those changes; otherwise it will literally be a case of television talk shows where the ever-pleasant anchors are overwhelmed by audio-visual comments, of a political leader coming to a public meeting to discover that his audience has left.