Graham Greene's spy novel The Human Factor was hardly about technology, but I was reminded about it the other day after reading a news item from the recently-held Methodist Conference in the United Kingdom. At this year's conference, the Rev. Ian White warned against the downside of technologies like SMS and the Internet.
"In some ways it can be said that we have become a more impersonal society where social meeting is being replaced by links through the Internet. Text messaging - with a language all of its own - replaces the human voice," he said. "Many of these developments are of benefit, but, when done at the expense of personal contact, they raise concern as to how we develop as a people - the social interface that bonds together a community."
Another speaker at the same conference - David Welbourn, head of strategy at BT Business Services and a local preacher - also warned that "another threat, applying particularly to young people, is one of under-developed social skills, or even isolationism, amongst those who face society through the keyboard rather than face to face." While Welbourn didn't specify whether he meant a PC or a phone keyboard, his meaning likely applied to both.
I (and, I suspect, many others) agree with Smith and Welbourn about these dangers. An SMS message is, after all, not as "warm" or "human" as a voice-message or live face-to-face conversation. But at the same time I have no doubts whatsoever that technologies like SMS overall are doing more good than bad in terms of human relations.
In places where SMS are used extensively - such as Europe and the Philippines - common uses range from simple messages to jokes that more often than not cheer the recipient. Often text messages are sent between people that normally wouldn't be calling each other during the day (After all, it's pretty unlikely that you would get a call at work from an acquaintance telling you "Hey, I called to tell you this funny joke I just heard"). Yet, sending a quick SMS is OK. It may or may not interrupt your work, but is a brief interruption at most (unlike that phone conversation, which would likely extend beyond the joke).
What happens as a result? You laugh (if the joke is good, of course) and then boost your ties to the sender, which can be anyone from a casual acquaintance to a good friend or relative.
New Channels, Timeless Messages
A major study about e-mail some years ago surprised many observers. Contrary to common belief, the study showed that e-mail increased rather than decreased personal, face-to-face contact between friends and family. The ease of use of the e-mail had increased the frequency of contacts, which in turn led to the growing need to meet in person.
I believe we are seeing the same apply to SMS. I've received (mainly humorous) text messages from people I otherwise would not have been in touch with. As a result, my personal contact with them increased.
At the same time, maybe the fact that SMS isn't a personal, face-to-face communications method may actually help many people explain things they wouldn't otherwise dare - for example teenagers showing their love interest in someone. Or shy people finding a way to communicate with friends that they find easier for initial contacts than face-to-face dialogue. Neither example can be bad.
And what about stress? We all know how bad that is for our overall physical and mental well-being. Since SMS often helps reduce work-related stress (increasing communications between co-workers without having to check landline or PC e-mail messages), they can positively influence our day-to-day communications with other people. (And, yes, I'm aware that the opposite argument can also be made - that SMS messages from your business contacts or co-workers can drive you nuts).
Of course, communicating through platforms like SMS is no substitute for real-life meetings and conversations. Rather they are a facilitator for making them easier. One common school of thought is that alcohol doesn't change the way you are, but reinforces it. I believe communicating through SMS and mobile data is similar. It won't change us, but can reinforce our needs and expressions. Or help us open more, if we're shy. Despite the "competition" from WAP and GPRS, SMS has shown that it remains an enormously popular way for people to communicate. As we await the spread of advanced messaging systems like MMS (which can bring "face-to-face" contact closer to reality through cameras and photos), let's not lose perspective on the benefits of mobile messaging.
And the bottom line? The Human Factor will always remain just that - independent of whether we use SMS or other technologies.
Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.