E-mail, text messages, Messenger – and then?
In Carl Zeller’s operetta »Bird Merchant«, letter carrier Christel sings her song enthusiastically, as she wends her way delivering mail leads her through the sprawling lands of the Palatinate to the recipients of the letters in her bag. »One can bear anything without complaint if one is always joyful and happy,« sings the Soubrette. At the time this was written, there was nothing to complain about. »The post office is not that fast« – the words of letter carrier Christel from the libretto reflect the typical pre-technological era attitude. A letter simply took time to arrive.
From our perspective, this relaxed attitude appears almost shocking. The classic postal service has become a nostalgic accessory through the modern communication channels that are growing ever faster.
While we will never know if Christel from the post office would still belt out her ditty as cheerfully today, the fact that E-mail, SMS, Messenger & Co. have revolutionized messaging and interpersonal communication, is beyond question. Reason enough to cast a 360-degree look at the history of communication and the promises for the future.
A quantum leap: E-mail conquers the world.
Not even a hundred years after the character of Christel from the post office came to life, E-mail entered the world stage. In 1971, the American programmer Ray Tomlinson first pressed the »send« button and transmitted a message to another system inside Arpanet. The conduit for E-Mail at that time was still a computer cable, but the far-reaching consequences of this first transmission soon exceed all limits. »Do not tell anyone,« Tomlinson asked his colleagues with a worried look in his eyes, »that’s not what we should work on.«
But his warning did not help: digital messaging was already drawing users in. Lastly, in 1981, the first mailing software »Sendmail« started its service and is still running on some systems to this day.
Unleashing the possibilities of E-mail also had an impact on the development of the World Wide Web, which celebrated its birth at the same time, freeing it from the limitations of a network or a computer system.
The first E-mail to a German addressee traveled from system to system in the summer of 1984. The message started on its only mere seconds-long journey from Massachusetts to the University of Karlsruhe via the Computer Science Network of the US National Science Foundation, where this digitization milestone is still remembered. Since then, the E-mail format and encoding have not changed much. However, very different would be a simultaneous development that cast its shadow in the winter of that same year…
Short, versatile, innovative: text messages and messenger services.
An employee of the Deutsche Bundespost and expert of the French telecom counterpart developed the first standard for a short message service in 1984. The famous classic length of a text message was derived from postcards and telexes – they all covered on average around 160 characters. The actual implementation for GSM networks finally took place in Finland and at the end of the 1980s, the first licenses for the mobile networks were granted. With the expansion of the D-networks in Germany or the Vodafone network in the United Kingdom, the basis for sending the first text message was set in Europe. »Merry Christmas« was broadcasted over the air in 1992 in the United Kingdom. However, it was not good wishes alone that helped text messages to achieve an international breakthrough. It was rather the promise to share thoughts and information with any person at any time in a compact format.
A quarter of a century later, text messages busted their 160-character corset and, with its cousin instant messaging, have developed into an auspicious form of communication that exceeds these promises significantly. The term Instant Message originates from the writer Paul Linebarger’s 1960s space operas – conceiving that everything imaginable is possible. The messenger services of our time have discarded all former standardizations since the pioneering invention of the ICQ software. Via smartphone, tablet and similar devices, business partners, friends, and family are just a swipe of the finger away. From a quick photo to video calls, to money or ticket delivery, messenger apps like WhatsApp, Skype, or Facebook Messenger make it possible at any time thanks to global connectivity. But what will their future be like?
A look into the future: we are online around the clock.
The term »going online« will lose its meaning in the future. While an adult spent just about three hours using the web on their smartphone in 2017, thresholds are increasingly disappearing and people understand that the network is becoming more and more a part of their everyday lives. This also includes digital forms of communication that discard old familiar boundaries. Micro communication is the keyword. Interpersonal exchange of the past took a lot of time. Today we are in constant communication with others through our permanent network. From shared moments to short questions about a personal or business nature, communication has become fast and information easy to consume. The ability to quickly organize, clarify and complete certain everyday tasks becomes an accessory, which creates more room to makes one’s own life more independent and free.
In fact, traditional forms of communication are »threatened« – but this loss is not an issue. The gain of freedom is expressed above all through pioneering technologies. Artificial intelligence, for example, can simplify and support exchanges with our counterparts. By capturing personal data, a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence that shares our lives with our smartphone, PC, tablet and smart home takes our needs into account as well as concerns and intentions. It informs us about previous conversations or when the last contact took place. This can even take the form of accompanying us on our walk through the real world with glasses containing miniature computers (eg: Google Glasses). Facial recognition or retrieval of data about a specific location can provide us with important information – communicating with another person becomes more immediate and connected.
Are established forms of communication finally a thing of the past because of this?
Flexibilization is a great claim that challenges our previous digital forms of communication. Text messages or Instant Messenger can still claim their place in ten or twenty years. Developments are already on the rise. In the future, AI will read text messages on our smartphone, for example, when our hands are full and we can’t retrieve our data. Alternatively, more and more accurate voice recognition will transform our language into text messages – language barriers will be eliminated through interposed translation and analysis programs, as will spelling and syntax errors.
What we cannot share in person we communicate through our social networks. Complex algorithms show not only as targeted advertising in significant placements but also as news and shared content of our favorite contacts. In this case, the control of the devices through speech and thought adds a visual component: The fast-paced imagery of selfie, holiday photo and such, allows us to share and convey current situations at any time. And because perfection can create thresholds, apps like Snapchat or features like the Instagram stories render recorded and shared things transient after a certain period of time.
And E-mails? They are currently experiencing their peak: the use of digital mail has tripled since 2010. In the future, however, E-mails will give way to the alternative messenger and chat programs just as business letter gave way to E-mails. Documents, encrypted data, and business papers can and will continue to be sent by E-mail. Organizational and short E-mails between colleagues or friends, however, rely on the efficiency of faster, voice-driven communication.
Thought and language can be considered as the key elements of communication of the future. Chips fed with the energy of our thoughts are not just communicating with RFID devices or beacons in our environment. Instead of dictating a message we can also send the information using thought input. The language will replace the »operating finger«. With a verbal command to our smartwatch we can book flight tickets and pass them on to the appropriate employee; Words such as »Let XY know that he can pick up his documents at time X in place Y« is formulated by AI independently and sent by mail or messenger. And the voice message becomes a word of honor in private and commercial exchanges which establishes closeness and creates temporal independence.
And as far as the post office is concerned, letter carrier Christel (»My work is magnificent, even if difficult«) would be astonished: Drones bring important documents from A to B within a few minutes, and the possibility for private providers of delivering shipments this way shortens the time from dispatch to delivery considerably. Their use may be reduced to certain areas: online shopping and official documents.
Closer, faster, easier: the communication of the future.
Nevertheless, some questions remain. How authentic can we remain with all these innovations in the digital communication sector? Are we able to express our own personality in spite of upstream systems that correct our grammar and spelling? Can we nurture friendships over long distances if AI and apps are the intermediaries of our exchanges? And will humans miss the haptic element as handwritten letters increasingly disappear?
The answer to all these questions provokes a counter question: how authentic do we want to be? The genuineness that actually represents us outwardly becomes possible through a comprehensive network. Mistrust of technology becomes obsolete thanks to reliable programs and permanently testable functions; the web becomes an imprint of our self. And as the postman already knew in the operetta, significant developments happen »just not right away, not immediately«. But the fact is, the future of communication begins with a lasting openness to future innovations.
How open are you to the communication of tomorrow?
Digitization is becoming more and more specific: finding clear words in the face of new communication modes may be difficult. But everything is under scrutiny as the world changes – including current forms of communication. We help you use your potential and advise you on how to make your strategic planning future-proof.
About Timo Hess.
Our author Timo Hess personally distinguishes little between E-mail, text message, WhatsApp or voice message. After all, communication in the digital age should be as easy as calling someone »Come on over, we read the latest issue of ‘Findings’ at suchdialog« in the room next door. Whether during his work with text or in search of the next inspiration: Timo Hess cannot help himself, he has to do it differently. The freelance author, copywriter and amateur literary scholar pushes the intellectual limits of any genre with ease and joy of the new. This results in text messages that challenge to spring-clean perspectives – ideally in the middle of a mental winter! And despite all the scientific enthusiasm, the beautiful aspects of our everyday life should never be forgotten. Timo Hess believes: there must be a texter in the middle of life! From there, the path leads with a magnifying glass in hand, straight into the world of the latest digitization trends.