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Connecting: Connecting with drama

Updated Thursday, 27th April 2006

We explore how Radio 4's Connecting series dramatises the opportunities and risks of modern communication technologies

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Developments in information and communication technology has provided us with expanded capabilities to send messages economically to anywhere around the globe and to record and recall vast amounts of data.

The technology has also offered commercial opportunities that have encouraged widespread investment in providing public access to a host of forms of communication from text to full colour video.

However, every communication medium has limitations as well as capabilities and even with amazing technologies we are still faced with the old difficulties in human communication. People will continue to:

  • misunderstand or mistrust one another
  • read more than was intended into conversations, documents and texts
  • hear what they hope to hear
  • colour their understanding by their moods and their stereotypical views
  • use different languages

Some restrictions of a communication technology can exaggerate these human limitations. For example, many information and communication technologies, like broadcast radio and TV, are asymmetric (the information flows in one direction at a time). They also give authority to a single voice and do not provide for a timely critical response.

Information and communication technology can obscure who you are dealing with and prevent the formation of trusting relationships, or arouse a fantasy that generates a misplaced trust. Attractive well-prepared presentations can grab attention unduly.

The ubiquity of communication media can promote the illusion that anything, anywhere can be known. But in spite of its global reach a technology is not necessarily available to collect or convey information when and where someone needs it. Or, in contrast, technology can provide so much data that the recipient has little time to absorb or evaluate anything - including intimate exchanges with his or her close neighbours, friends and family.

For all the benefits they bring, information and communication technologies can get in the way of communication and understanding. They can offer certain advantages to the unscrupulous, to deceivers, to thieves and to swindlers. The very technologies touted as aids to communicating and informing can equally well throttle human communication or misinform.

Communication might be better thought of as a struggle to build relationships with other people and to influence their actions: a struggle complicated by the limitations of technology and the over-optimistic expectation that a new technology will make life easier.

Learning about gadgets can provide clues to the capacity and bounds of technology but the capabilities and limits of communication, cognition and understanding can only be grasped fully when you consider the emotions, abilities, actions and distractions of people: the technology users.

When talking about technology, it is easy to concentrate on devices, hardware and software and to exclude people. At the centre of drama, on the other hand, are the human characters. Drama provides a way of exploring human fragilities and with a little imagination on the part of the playwright and audience, can incorporate all kinds of technology whether proven or fanciful. The plays in the series Connecting have exploited this opportunity and address some of the complications that arise when people are added to the vast variety of interconnected information and communication devices.

The World in My Ear
The Friday play, The World In My Ear,  is about the gulf between the artificial and constrained world of the signs and symbols that are exploited and projected by our information and communication technologies, and the world outside of our ultra reliable, error resistant technology, where accidents, trauma, wounding and death occur. The play is, on the surface, about a character engrossed in electronic music who has a fatal accident triggered by a lack of attention to the everday physics of the world. We eavesdrop on his transition to an afterlife — a transition into an ether that allows him to observe the traces of his past.

Although we may be unaware, we leave behind a physical trace of our actions, like footprints, and the effects of our actions, such as sounds and sights, propagate physically across space and time. These traces are, in the main, microscopic and imperceptible, but as the play suggests they are sometimes recoverable.

The play evokes a view of information and communication technologies as technologies that exploit these physical traces of human activity and provide ways of shepherding them, amplifying them, reorganising them, bringing them to our notice, and necessarily selecting what we experience of human activity from other places and times because of the sheer scale of human activity and our limited capacity.

By referring to an afterlife the play destroys the distinction between ceaseless time and the expanse of space and hints at an analogy between a communication across space — by telephone, radio or whatever — and memory — communication across time. It is easy to assume that our communication across space, however large or small, with other people is wholly successful. We express things, they give their assent and we move on.

Nevertheless misunderstandings occur, our missives are ignored and we omit crucial details. Remembering is a communication across time with our individual selves. For most people forgetting detail, muddling up different incidents, reinterpreting events and privileging some memories above others are common and recognised experiences. Memory is also about binding our selves with a series of events, our personal history or biography, and creating an identity.

Communication across space, by analogy with memory is potentially unreliable but it is also about reinforcing our relationships with events, which involve other people and artefacts, and which contribute towards a definition of who we, individually and collectively, think we are. The play constructs an identity from an account of memories, perhaps offering an allegory of our use of technologies that create records of events — captured by cameras, microphones, key presses and so on. Such records form biographies that are taken to be signs of our personal identities which govern the reactions of all kinds of bureaucratic agencies and which, in turn, shape our own sense of authority and identity.

What Could Go Wrong?
Call Waiting illustrates the frustration of Carol who has, like many of us, sophisticated communication technology such as the mobile phone at her fingertips yet is unable to find out what she, in desperately tragic circumstances, wants and needs to know.

Her failure is, interestingly, not a failure of the technology or incompetence of personnel but more to do with the impossibility of foreseeing or catering for every unlikely circumstance.

The difficulties of communication in Last Call arise mainly from attempts to hide information by vested interests, concerned about reputations, profits, a sincere attempt to protect livelihoods and to provide some generalised and intangible degree of security. It leads to a common ethical dilemma about whether to reveal information or not. Either course of action can be harmful but different people will be harmed by each alternative. For some the dilemma translates into questions about where loyalties lie. For others, without any authority or control, it means either sustained employment and security or redundancy and insecurity. For a minority the consequences may be painful and tragic.

The third afternoon play, Network Failure, considers the cultural assumptions that we presume when we use or deploy a technology. Where a technology, including its modes of use, are transplanted unsympathetically into a new cultural setting and it fails, falls into disuse, or more likely is adapted to the unforeseen context and used in new ways, often prosaic ways, that were unanticipated and that possibly remain beyond the understanding of the original investor or supplier. Whether the results are beneficial or not then become a matter of chance.






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