The Tyranny of Distance*

Dear Starbucks,

Cruel temptress, aging sea-urchinette logo and all, you still have your attractions.  Market-manipulation (videlicit: exotic coffees brewed individually on the New ThingyTM) and people-watching being two of my favorites.  The strawberry smoothie’s pretty tasty too.  And this morning you brought me awareness as well.

See, as a member of the (usually) sighted and hearing communities, I forget sometimes how vast an impact portable digital communications tools can have as they transform older technology.  Take the TTY, for instance.  (No, dearies, that’s not a typo, we’re not missing an ‘L’.)  When the text telephone (TTY) was created  in the 1970s, the Deaf community gained a handle on the airwaves.  Not only did it allow communication across long distances, it enabled cross-communication between Deaf and hearing communicators across those same distances.

Let me be more specific – the TTY allowed two-way cross-communication across distances to a group that was previously limited in that area by the same tools that allowed hearing and sighted folks to spread out and keep talking to each other.  Conversation, give and take, disagreement, and more.

Email, Facebook, and chat technologies have elevated these communications and opened many more ways for people of different abilities to communicate equally across distance.  But.  Text communications lack a certain something – tone, in particular, as well as the visual modifiers that let us know when someone is just kidding, and when they’re really being a jerk.

We’ve developed our own means of modulating text (the dreaded smilies, LOLs and A**CAPS included) to compensate.

American Sign Language does a similar thing, using body and facial expressions to add layers of meaning to the language.  Now that Google has Hangouts, and Facebook and Skype seem to be preparing something similar, there are many more options for overcoming the difficulties of communicating over distance.  The young woman causually ASL-Skyping with her friend over coffee shop wifi (while I stood by, not so causally, dork-stunned by how awesome and simple a solution it was) is a perfect case in point.

So, this means there are a whole host of different uses for Hangouts and FaceSkype and their descendants that the mainstream media community hasn’t given much thought to (that includes me, barring Starbucks-borne insights)… though other communities have.

It means also that we have new ways to communicate together, across distances, that we should be expanding, rather than limiting through bandwidth throttles and restrictive “this is the way the internet needs to be used” directives.

What else can folks do with these fancy tools we’ve got?

*with apologies to the Split Enz

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