October 16, 2016

Can You Hear Me Now?

There used to be a television commercial for a phone company that featured a man walking around with a phone to his ear, regularly asking, "Can you hear me now?" The question became a trademark for the company, and it cleverly embedded itself in our culture. In those days, signal coverage, the ability to make a phone call, was a lot harder. Wandering five feet from your original position might mean you dropped the call or got your connection back. We fought for that connection. We sought out the tallest places and contorted our bodies in bizarre ways; many phone calls felt like lifelines. We worked hard to keep in communication and hear each other. The commercial and the company's tagline piggybacked on our real-life experience.

Our options for connecting with other human beings have exploded in the last twenty years. Nokia introduced the first phone with internet and email access in 1996. Twenty years later, the number of people who own a smartphone and can check email or surf the internet is in the billions. [As a sidenote, think about this: counting to one billion, saying one number per second without pausing, will take 31.7 years.] Microsoft launched its Encarta program for millions of people to use as an encyclopedia resource in the 1990s; it shuttered the program in 2009. Wikipedia began in 2001; it now has more than 5.2 million articles with more than 850 billion edits. 4.2 billion people send 18.7 billion text messages a day, 560 billion texts a month. Online journals first started in 1994; there were 23 blogs in 1999. Today, there are more than 1.5 billion blogs (including this one) and more than 2.1 million pieces posted online to those blogs in the past twelve hours.

Our tools for connecting have skyrocketed, but I get a feeling of desperation from all of this communication. I feel frustrated if I'm unable to reach someone, but I don't feel as frustrated if I see I missed a call. I confess I usually think, "Drat. Well, they'll try again later."

If there are 18 billion texts sent every day, 2.1 million blogs posted, and 10+ billion phone calls per day (3 billion or more within the U.S. alone)... this is an overwhelming flood, even for 7.3 billion people. We are inundated daily with millions, billions of voices screaming for our attention.

The television commercial is a interesting (if slightly twisted) picture of truth. The industry the commercial represents has inundated our world with options for connecting. We're all talking more; we're all trying to say more; we're all trying to connect more. But we're listening less. We're asking each other, over and over on so many platforms in so many ways: "Can you hear me now?" I've never once asked (or heard) the opposite question: "Do you feel heard?"

I don't even think our lives are more connected, despite our tools. A study in 2014 for the company DHL on phone usage statistics worldwide found that we talk often amongst ourselves, but little to those who are 'unlike' us. Only 3-4% of phone calls were international in 2014; most are domestic. On the internet, roughly 17% of all internet traffic crosses international borders. An estimated 16% of the average person's friends on facebook are foreign; 25% of those we follow on Twitter are foreign. To quote the authors, "Just because we are able to befriend anyone living anywhere on Facebook doesn't mean we will—there is an important distinction between potential connectivity and actual connectedness." [the original study is here]

We're talking more--more topics, more places, more people--but we're listening less.

I think change starts small. I can choose to mute my phone or set it aside (face down, so it doesn't distract me). I can look another person in the eyes during a casual exchange. I can listen to another person talk and use my mind and energy to understand what they're saying, rather than figure out what I'm going to say next. (I'm particularly bad at this.) If I can help even a handful of people feel heard in a day, imagine what 7.3 billion handfuls might do.

Can you hear me now?

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