It wasn’t that long ago we had to rely on the postal service and landline telephones when we wanted to communicate with anyone who wasn’t nearby. Now we’re surrounded by tools we can use whenever we want to talk to someone instantly, whether they’re just around the corner or on the other side of the world.
So how has modern technology changed the way in which we communicate? And how is it likely to develop in future?
Ancient forms of communication
We’re a sociable species – no matter how much some of us claim to prefer our own company – and we’ve been inventing different forms of communication since prehistoric times.
Before the development of the written word, members of ancient civilisations often sent urgent messages to people nearby using smoke signals and other methods, but they also told stories and communicated with each other in the form of images.
Early examples of pictorial communication can still be seen today. There are prehistoric cave paintings on the walls of the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc in France, for example, as well as Mayan petroglyphs in South America and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the pyramids at Giza.
Written forms of communication
The development of writing systems and alphabets changed the way in which we were able to communicate with each other, as we could express more complex ideas than we could when using images alone.
Over the centuries, letter writing became the only way by which to communicate with people long-distance, and it stayed that way until the electrical telegraph was invented in the 19th century. Letter writing was such a common place method of communicating that, during the 18th century, the epistolary novel became a particularly popular genre. The delivery of letters also became big business, with postal services being set up around the world.
Modern forms of communication
The real revolution in communication methods began in the nineteenth century. Following on from the invention of the telegraph, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell made history when he was granted US Patent 174, 465 on 7 March 1876. This patent was for what Bell referred to as the ‘acoustic telegraph’ – and we now call the ‘telephone’. Three days after the patent was granted, Bell made the first ever telephone call, during which he said to his assistant, Thomas Watson, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you”.
The first transatlantic telephone call took place in 1926, making long distance communication an almost instant process. Gradually, having a telephone in our homes became commonplace. But the next steps in the communication revolution were already on their way.
Communicating on the move and over the internet
The 1990s saw the beginning of yet another huge change in the way we communicate with each other. Although mobile phone technology had been in development since the 1940s, but with smaller handsets and better coverage, mobiles suddenly became a must-have item for everyone.
The launch of the World Wide Web as a publically available service in 1991 also began to change the way in which we talked to each other. We could now email people on the other side of the world instantly, rather than relying on expensive long distance phone calls or slow postal systems, and we could send them emails at any time of the day or night, negating time zone issues. We could also publish our own content on the web when we wanted to reach a wider audience, and the development of social media sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter meant we could connect with old friends, make new friends, share our thoughts with the world and even talk directly to our favourite celebrities.
Today, we want to be able to communicate with lots of people, whenever we want to, however we want to, instantly. And we want easy access to tools to help us to do this.
Smartphones combine telephone technology with all the benefits of internet to help us to do this. They provide us with a wide range of communication methods – we can call, text or email people, talk to people through social media sites, share images and video content and even have face-to-face conversations with people in faraway locations on a video call or in a group video chat.
The future of communication
This need for fast, flexible and diverse communication methods is likely to drive further changes in the future. Experts working in the field of future technology predict we will continue to rely on the internet, with video conferencing and social media becoming the dominant methods in the next few years. But scientists are already working on forms of technology which could revolutionise the way in which we use these tools.
One really exciting development could be the mass market use of holographic technology. This might all sound a bit ‘Star Trek’, but it’s already being developed. In fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced it’s using this technology to try to create a glasses-free 3D TV. So it’s perfectly possible that we could be able to see 3D images of our friends and family standing in our living room when we talk about making a video call to them in the future.
Mobile communication is also set to become more and more important, as our working patterns are predicted to become more flexible in the future. So while you can already access social media and services like Skype on your smartphone, you’ll be likely to do even more with it in future. But smartphones could end up being replaced by headset technology, allowing us to see messages from people in front of our eyes and record images while we’re doing things and share them with our friends. Google has already demonstrated its ‘Project Glass’ augmented reality glasses to the world and Apple is rumoured to be working on a similar project.
Interestingly, images are likely to be a key part of the way in which we communicate with each other in the future – just as they were for ancient civilisations.
How do you think communication will change in the future?