February 7, 2010 in Features

Text Mess

An unfortunate side effect of technology is that we’re creating a communication gap between generations
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Molly Quinn photo


(Full-size photo)

John Caputo grew up with grandparents who settled in the United States from Italy.

They didn’t speak much English. They didn’t like talking on the phone. Luckily, he lived three blocks away and visited with them in person.

Caputo, 63, a longtime communication arts professor at Gonzaga University, grew up with a linguistic communication gap with his elder loved ones. Now, as an older person in his own family, he’s facing a technological gap.

His four children, ages 23 to 33, don’t listen to Caputo’s voice mails and don’t often read his e-mails. His students don’t read e-mails much, either. And voice mails? Forget about it.

So Caputo has adapted.

“A colleague and I were sitting there with our cell phones one day saying ‘We don’t know how to do a text message. Should we text message?’ ” he recalls.

“A student walked by. We said, ‘Help us one minute. How do you do a text message?’ She showed us.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never use this.’ But a month later, I took it for granted. I find it useful, though I’m not very good with my thumbs.”

Within the next few years, some of our society’s myriad communication methods will die out, the way telegrams died out for good in 2006. In the meantime, the communication gap between the generations widens.

“We’ve never had more ways to communicate,” says Gary Krug, associate professor of communication at Eastern Washington University. “But we’ve never been more isolated by our technologies.”

Twenty Gonzaga University freshmen and sophomores in an “Intro to Journalistic Writing” class recently filled out a survey on their communication habits:

•All 20 have cell phones. The majority have “land lines,” because their apartments or dorms are equipped with them, but only one student ever uses that land line.

“I have one, but I don’t know where it is or if it works,” Alyse Brindle, 20, said in a typical statement.

Nationally, 23 percent of folks use cell phones only; the percentage jumps to 45 percent of adults ages 25 to 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

•Twelve of the 20 students rarely or never listen to their voice mails. They all gave the same reason: Too time-consuming. They respond to “missed call” messages instead.

“My record is 11 unheard voice mails,” said Nicole Soroka, 20. “My best friend yells at me for it, but it just takes up too much time. I might as well just call them back.”

Nationally, between 20 and 30 percent of people rarely if ever listen to voice mail messages anymore, according to research by The New York Times.

•All 20 students write and mail handwritten notes, but the practice is diminishing nationally.

The U.S. postal service lost $3.8 billion in 2009 and blamed it, in part, on declining mail volume. In 2009, mail volume declined by more than 25 billion pieces, or 12.7 percent, according to a November postal service report.

But grandparents, take heart: Most of these students are writing to you. Some students even write letters for a “retro” thrill.

Sage Stargrove, 18, explained: “I write my best friends and boyfriend letters every few weeks. Receiving mail is so uncommon today that it’s a fun thing to do!”

At the Sinto Senior Center in Spokane, five players were gathered around a wooden table one recent Tuesday to play double-deck racehorse pinochle. The men and women ranged in age from 61 to 90.

Among this group:

•All have land lines at home.

•Three of the five have cell phones, but only one uses his regularly.

•Only one of the five, Harold Bowker, 75, has a computer. He sends e-mails “maybe once a month.”

•Almost all grew up when phone technology was in its adolescent phase. Betty Knott, 90, grew up in a rural area with no phone service at all. Two of the others grew up with party lines, in which several neighbors vied for the same line.

•They all still write letters and cards. Cliff Barclay, 89, has more than three dozen grandchildren, and he dutifully sends them birthday cards.

•Not one of them has ever texted, nor do they wish to learn.

•Not one has heard of Skype, in which phone calls are made over the Internet, with video cameras attached to a computer so you can see the person with whom you are talking.

•They all prefer communicating in person. Evelyn Buck, 86, is looking forward to a June visit from her 13 North Dakota relatives.

These card players spend three hours together each week. This has been their pinochle ritual for several years.

They talk about everything, except religion and politics, and they look out for one another.

When Bowker had shoulder surgery and couldn’t drive, the “youngster” in the group, Doug Thiele, 61, drove him to the senior center.

“If I didn’t get out and talk to people, I’d go crazy,” Bowker said.

In children’s brains, a pruning process is ongoing. Some synapses – the brain’s message transmitters – get clipped off while others grow stronger. It makes the brain efficient and flexible.

A similar thing is happening in our collective “communication brain.” We’ve never had more synapses – landlines, cell phones, snail mail, voice mail, texting, Skyping.

You can even communicate through social media sites, such as Facebook, or broadcast your thoughts through Twitter.

Some are destined for pruning. Postal mail, landlines and voice mail are already on the decline. Will they be obsolete within a decade or so?

Communication experts say not so fast with the eulogies.

It will be much easier for Twitter to die off, compared with landlines. Major reason: infrastructure.

“You can just throw a switch and it disappears,” explains EWU’s Krug. “It’s not bricks and mortar. Telephones have been around a long time. We have lots of traditional and nontraditional ways to use the phone.”

Krug believes there might also be a backlash against technology that distances people from face-to-face communication.

“But the real backlash will be when we have a power failure on a mass scale,” he says. “What do you do then?”

Both Krug and Caputo, however, believe that the responsibility rests with the older people to adapt.

Krug is proud of his 83-year-old mother who has embraced the computer.

“She’s online,” he says. “She has a Facebook page.”

And Caputo realizes that texting, the preferred method of communication for his students, can be a lifesaving technology.

After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, many campuses, including GU, developed campus-wide alert systems. The majority of students will receive those alerts through texting.

Caputo encourages older people to ask younger people for help learning the new technologies.

“The more you don’t make the change,” he says, “the more you end up isolating yourself.”


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