robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

At the end of my college lectures, students immediately flip-open their cellphones, checking for calls and texts. In the cafeteria, I observe students standing in queues, texting, neglecting fellow students two feet away. Late one afternoon, I noticed six students wandering up-and-down a long hallway while using cellphones, somehow avoiding collision, like ships cruising in the night, lost in a fog of conversation, or like creatures from The Night of the Living Dead. A student reported emailing during a "computer date," not leaving her room on a Saturday night. Paradoxically, these students were both socially engaged and socially isolated.

My first encounter with people using unseen phone headsets was startling; they walked through an air terminal apparently engaging in soliloquies or responding to hallucinated voices. More is involved than the displacement of snail mail by email, a topic of past decades; face-to-face encounters are being displaced by relations with a remote, disembodied conversant somewhere in cyberspace. These experiences forced a rethinking of my views about communication, technological and biological, ancient and modern, and prompted research projects examining the emotional impact, novelty and evolution of social media.

The gold standard for interpersonal communication is face-to-face conversation in which you can both see and hear your conversant. In several studies, I contrasted this ancestral audiovisual medium with cellphone use in which you hear but do not see your conversant, and texting in which you neither see nor hear your conversant. Conversations between deaf signers provided a medium in which individuals see but not hear their conversant.

The telephone, cell or land line, provides a purely auditory medium that transmits two-way vocal information, including the prosodic (affective) component of speech, but filters the visual signals of gestures, tears, smiles and other facial expressions. The purely auditory medium of the telephone is, itself, socially and emotionally potent, generating smiles and laughs in remote individuals, a point confirmed by observation of 1,000 solitary people in public places. Unless using a cellphone, isolated people are essentially smile less, laugh less and speechless. (We confirmed the obvious because the obvious is sometimes wrong.) Constant, emotionally rewarding vocal contact with select, distant conversants is a significant contributor to the worldwide commercial success of cellphones. Radio comedy and drama further demonstrate the power of a purely auditory medium, even when directed one-way from performer to audience. While appreciating the inventions of the telephone and broadcasting, it occurred to me that the ability to contact unseen conversants is a basic property of the auditory sense; it's as old as our species and occurs every time that we speak with someone in the dark or not in our line of sight. Phones become important when people are beyond shouting distance.

The emotional communication between individuals who can see but not hear their conversant was explored in a study of deaf individuals with collaborator Karen Emmorey. We observed vocal laughter and associated social variables in conversations between deaf signers using American Sign Language. Despite their inability to hear their conversational partner, deaf signers laughed at the same places in the stream of signed speech, at similar material, and showed the same gender patterns of laughter as hearing individuals during vocal conversations. An emotionally rich dialogue can be, therefore, conducted with an exclusively visual medium that filters auditory signals and passes only visual ones. Less nuanced visual communication is ancient and used when communicating beyond vocal range via such signals as gestures, flags, lights, mirrors, or smoke.

Text messaging, whether meaty emails or telegraphic tweets, involves conversants who can neither see nor hear each other and are not interacting in real time. My research team examined emotional communication online by analyzing the placement of 1,000 emoticons in Website text messages. Emoticons resembled conversational laughter in their placement in the text-stream — they seldom interrupted phrases. For example, you may text, "You are going where on vacation? Lol," but not "You are — lol — going where on vacation?"

Technophiles writing about text messaging sometime justify emoticon use as a response to the "narrowing of band-width" characteristic of text messaging, ignoring that text viewed on a computer monitor or cellphone is essentially identical to that of a printed page. I suspect that emoticon use is a likely symptom of the limited literary prowess of texters.  Know what I mean? Lol. Readers seeking the literary subtleties of irony, paradox, sarcasm, or sweet sorrow are unlikely to find it in text messages. Although not providing immediate, long distance contact, physically transported handwritten text messages have existed since clay tables and papyrus, and could be faster than commonly thought. Unless checked frequently, electronic text messaging may not be faster than the postal service of 18th Century London that had up to six deliveries per day and offered the possibility of a same-day receipt and response. A century later, telegraphy provided an even faster pre-Internet text option.

The basic cellphone has morphed into a powerful, mobile, multimedia communication device and computer terminal that is a major driver of Internet society. It gives immediate, constant contact with select, distant conversants, and can tell you where you are, where you should go next, how to get there, provide diversions while waiting, and document your journey with text, snaps and video images. For some, this is enhanced reality, but it comes at the price of the here-and-now. Whatever your opinion and level of engagement, the cellphone and related Internet devices are profound social prostheses — almost brain implants — that have changed our lives and culture.