We humans learned to communicate when we dressed in skins, fought with clubs, and talked in grunts. The human community was a frail group arrayed against monsters like woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. Speed of reaction was essential. Instant reading of intent – correctly – meant the difference between life and death. We learned to communicate quickly, unconsciously, and simply. We focused on a few essential questions: friend or foe? Leader or follower? Potential mate or not? Something I can eat or that will eat me?
We learned to recognize patterns, like the shadow a stalking lion makes in the grass, and react quickly. Faster than conscious thought. And we learned to become prediction machines, always focused on what was going to happen in the next few seconds, so that we could anticipate what was coming, and react appropriately.
We based our reactions on what we learned about humans and other animals, recognizing particularly those patterns that threatened us with death and acting on them in the blink of an eye in order to keep on living. To keep those patterns – and memories of those patterns – fresh, we ordered them in a hierarchy of importance determined by emotional tags. The most frightening things we remembered best. Every day our brains learned to scrub less powerful emotional memories from the brain in order to start again, retaining the patterns and memories that seemed most important – most scary — closely followed by relevance to food, shelter, sex, and the other essentials.
That was 200,000 years ago. Things didn’t change much for, roughly, 199,900 years. Then we started communicating virtually. We started with telegraphs and landline phones, but the real change happened when we took up with smart phones and began to use them as a constant filter between us and reality. As a result, our virtual communications today have unintentionally stripped out most of the emotional structure of face-to-face communications, while at the same time making it much easier to connect with more people faster with less effort.
The result? We are both overwhelmed and bored.
Email (and its text equivalents), for example, lacks all the emotional nuances of a conversation – or can only insert a fraction of them with great effort – and comes at us at a staggering rate.
Only by understanding the real ways in which humans communicate effectively through their unconscious minds can we understand why virtual communications are, for the most part, so awful – and then figure out how to fix the sorry state of virtual communications.
Let me illustrate with an example.
I stepped outside the hotel that evening, looked around, saw a Paris city street with not much going on. I saw the moment as my chance to, well, run a little wild.
What kind of trouble could I get into?
I was harboring two mortifying secrets. First, I was as naïve as it was possible to be and not be immediately arrested for naivete. Second, and this was even more embarrassing, I was fifteen. I wasn’t of age, even in this enlightened place.
These facts limited my excitement. But I told myself I was ready for anything, with all the bravado of the greenhorn. I had no way of imagining that, seconds later, my bluff would be called.
Yet it was. As I stood there, trying to figure out how to pop the cork of experience I was sure was waiting for me on a hot summer evening in Paris, a car pulled up with a screech of brakes. I could see that it was full of people roughly my age, maybe a little older. Excitement was radiating off the car like the heat of that night. A window in the back rolled down, and a young woman stuck her head out, sized me up, and shouted a question at me, in French.
“Do you want to go to the ________?” “Voulez-vous aller a la ______?” I could make out the first part, but the crucial final word sounded like “manifestation,” “or perhaps “demonstration,” or maybe even “riot,” and I had no idea what that meant. Here was the dilemma: I really, really wanted to go wherever that young woman was proposing to take me, but not at the cost of being kidnapped, held for ransom, and subsequently slaughtered when my parents refused to pay, as I was sure they would.
I stood there, gaping at the car, wondering what to do.
The woman repeated the question, even more impatiently. “Voulez-vous aller a la ______?” I hopped from one leg to the other as I teetered on the brink of a decision. I wanted to go so very much, but I was afraid.
Finally, I breathed, and said, “Je suis desole, mais non,” in my best schoolboy French, “I am sorry, but no.”
The young woman looked at me with incredulity, scorn, and disappointment all rolled up into one French gaze, or at least so I thought, said, “Hein,” slapped the side of the car, and disappeared into the night.
I have never been so thoroughly dismissed, before or since, in a word which roughly translated means “huh,” and a gesture that forever separated me from the 1968 student Paris uprisings and a chance to man the barricades, overturn a government, and step into history.
When we communicate face to face, body language conveys far more of the essential elements of the exchange than the content. On that French street, I knew I was being asked to go somewhere dangerous, because of the tension emanating from the car and its occupants. I could tell by their hurry and impatience that they were already enrolled in some activity that I had no knowledge of. They knew where they were going; I wouldn’t. That increased the risk to me. And visually I could measure their sophistication and belonging against my lack of experience with the tribe of which they were clear members.
While at the time I thought I was lacking a crucial bit of vocabulary, in fact I could sense from the non-verbal exchange enough critical information to determine what sort of invitation it was. The content, finally, didn’t matter. The body language told me all I needed to know to make a decision in a time frame that didn’t allow for a rational weighing of alternatives in any case.
In the virtual world, it’s impossible to convey that sort of richness of unconscious information. Had I somehow received a text inviting me to the riot, the mere words would not have been able to include the deep stream of sensory data that the in-person invitation unintentionally signaled.
The brain is a multi-channel sensory analysis computer. When a channel (or several) is impoverished, such as what happens when you receive a text, the brain fills in the missing data willy-nilly. It uses old data, pattern recognition, and finally just makes stuff up. That’s why we’re so prone to imagine a snarky tone in an email or attitude from a colleague on a phone call when none is intended. Our brains are whirring away, processing endless streams of sights, sounds, smells, and so on, and when those channels run dry, it just fills them up with its memories. It’s hard to decide at all, and when we’re forced to, we have faulty data. We end up making bad decisions
In contrast, on that French street, I had all the information I needed to avoid the call of history and stay safe as a fifteen-year-old tourist. Even when I thought I didn’t know the language well enough, I actually did.
Never mistake a virtual communication for the whole story.