Walking through the streets of Berlin, Karl can not stop thinking about her and how far away she is. All he wants to do is express his gratitude for her love, yet the thousands of miles separating them makes this difficult, but not impossible. Karl places his carefully crafted letter into a mailbox and heads home to wait 2 months for a response. The year is 1875. One year later the first telephone call will be made. Currently, in the year 2018, interpersonal communication has evolved tremendously to a point where we can easily talk to people across the world in an instant. Over the past 150 years , technological innovations have shifted from a focus of shortening the distance between two people to a focus of capturing the essence of natural interpersonal communication.
“Mr. Watson, come here
I Want to see you”
Alexander Graham Bell to assistant, Thomas A. Watson
Over time, technological advances have altered the way we communicate with others, allowing humans the capability to instantly send messages across the globe and to even talk face-to-face through a phone. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Throughout history, conveying a message over a long distance has taken many technological forms. For instance, one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication involves the use of smoke signals. This may seem to be an inefficient technique, yet it was once the most effective way to convey a message over a long distance. Soldiers in ancient China would use smoke signals on the Great Wall to signal to other towers that there was imminent danger. They were able to transmit a message like this over 470 miles away. Interestingly enough, combustion was also used centuries later as a form of long-distance communication when Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet used cannons to convey messages from ship to ship in the year 1520. A little over 300 years later, the Pony Express opened up a whole new realm of communication opportunities that allowed humans to send a message from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast in only 10 days. This marked a significant change in what we focused on as a species in terms of technological innovation.
The Great Wall, China
With earlier primitive forms of long-distance communication we were focused on the seemingly simple task of getting a message from Point A to Point B. In the 19th century the focus shifted towards innovation that served to shrink the perceived distance between two people. For example, the aforementioned Pony Express took 10 days to bring a message from coast-to-coast, yet only 16 years later the first telephone call instantly relayed a message from New York to San Francisco. In the historic first call, Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.” This was a tremendous foreshadow for an upcoming shift of focus regarding communication innovation. As the telephone became increasingly popular, and radio and television shifted the way we consume media, we collectively approached the inception of a tool that would very quickly erase any perceived distance between any two people on Earth: The Internet.
Pony expresses rider riding by men stringing telegraph wires, 1867
While these advances have progressed society, they have missed a key part of what it means to communicate with other people. When we talk to others, there are a plethora of verbal forms of communication, yet there are also an incredible amount of nonverbal cues that assist in dyadic communication. Talking through a telephone in your hand, it is seemingly impossible to meet the full breadth of communicative forms that the human mind perpetually desires. Over time, long distance relationships of all kinds, from lovers to parental dyads, face the stressors of distance. One of the main reasons for the distress that accompanies distance in a relationship is the lack of physical nonverbal communication. While previous and existing technologies have failed to address this form of communication, the newest focus of communication innovation is aimed at capturing the essence of what it means to be present with another human being. We are on the verge of unearthing technologies that break this barrier allowing homo sapiens that ability to communicate nonverbally through motion and a sense of presence from thousands of miles away. When this barrier is broken, we will as a species experience an immense explosion of possibilities for long-distance empathetic connection. This will make the world significantly smaller, while simultaneously bringing humans closer together than ever before.
Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the
long-distance line from New York to Chicago, 1892
A technological invention that has contributed to the focus of capturing the essence of interpersonal communication is video calling. Video calling has been revolutionary in that it allows people to see exactly what they are doing instantaneously, no matter the distance between them. This allows for a visual component to long-distance empathetic communication. While video calling is incredible in many regards, it falls short in its ability to capture the full breadth of the non-verbal realm of interpersonal communication. A new technology that incorporates nonverbal communication into video calling is temi, the Personal Robot. Using Temi’s video calling feature, if a person had temi in their home in Los Angeles, they could call it from Hong Kong and control it from thousands of miles away. This means that they would be able to move around their home as if they were really there. Looking ahead, it is exciting to speculate what possible inventions may occur in the decades to come. One can only assume that telecommunication innovation will continue to lean towards maximizing the capacity for humans to be in two places at once. Walking through the streets of Berlin, Karl’s grandson has the ability to video-call his wife from thousands of miles away and communicate both verbally and nonverbally just 143 years after his grandfather had sent letters. This is no longer the future, but the present reality.