For thousands of years, cultures were separated by communication difficulties enforced by language barriers. But today, communication barriers have little to do with native tongue, as English has become the common language of international business, academia and government. Rather, the communication barriers of the 21st century are our differing familiarities with communication technologies. As technologies evolve, these “cultural” differences will become just as powerful as language barriers.
Just this week, I was speaking with a New York State employee who had called me in an attempt to get a corporate issue resolved. I had a complete a form, and part of the conversation went something like this:
Me: How do I find the form?
Her: Are you near a pen and paper?
Me: No, I’m walking. Can you email me the URL?
Her: We can’t use email. I have to spell it out to you.
Me: Okay, but I’m not near a computer or a pen. Can I call you later today?
Her: I don’t have a direct number. I’ll call you.
Me: Okay, so then I mail you the form? What’s your address?
Her: We prefer fax.
I’ve discussed the government technology gap before — clearly, there is a disconnect in native communication platforms between my company and New York State and likely a comparable disparity between myself and this employee. But this is not simply a hierarchy of tech savvy. For instance, while both an average American teenager and I are technologically competent, we live on different platforms — I live on email and Skype and am occasionally annoyed whenever someone sends me an important note via Facebook or over a text message. We communicate in a different technological language.
As communication evolves at an ever-increasing rate, my native platforms will continue to diverge from both the teenager’s and the NY state government employee’s. By the time New York State, for instance, adopts email, I will probably have moved on to a totally different communication platform. But at the same time, new technology quickly yet unevenly spreads across our society, leaving us in the position of being unable to communicate effectively — not across cultural or linguistic barriers, but across technological ones.
On a related note, I have seen several examples of employers making hiring decisions based on a potential employee’s presence on the social web — not in the negative sense that you hear about in the news, but rather to ensure that a new team member participates in the same communication platforms as the rest of the team: Facebook, Twitter et al. This has become a big piece of the “cultural fit” that so many companies — especially startups — talk about.
Communication barriers tend to amplify over time. This is how species are created and languages are formed. If it is difficult for Group A to understand Group B due to a slight language difference, they are less likely to communicate. But with less direct communication between the groups comes a continued divergence of language, which can eventually lead to an entirely new language being created — and the groups totally unable to understand each other. While the opposite process has been happening for the world’s languages, I worry that divergence will begin again on top of technological barriers.
I’m not sure there is an effective solution here. “Education” is one answer, but in reality the problem is rarely an unfamiliarity with technology in general — it is either a lack of comfort with particular platforms or regulatory barriers that prevent its effective use.