Recent event: “Why Communicate?”

This terms’ final Arcadia Project seminar took place at Wolfson College on June 28th. The speaker was Richard Harper, from Microsoft Research, addressing the question “Why Communicate?”. Richard is co-author of ‘The myth of the paperless office‘, and author of ‘Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload, both of which have found their way onto my Amazon wish list after Richard’s compelling and entertaining seminar presentation.


Hyperconnectivity – too much communication? Americans face 50 emails a day (Cavanagh, 2003). Shipley‘s ‘how, where and when’ of email; how can we deal with this overload? Turkle, 2011 – so much communication makes the soul vacant (apparently!).

Some conundrums:

  • Do we actually communicate any more than before?
  • If we are overloaded, why do we delight in creating new communication channels?

In 1910, the average person received an average of 139 letters per year (including bills!)! So the ‘golden age of the letter’ is a myth.

There is massive variation in email traffic by individuals; e.g. Richard receives 120 emails per day whereas another particular Microsoft colleague (Bill Gates!) gets 3000 (but most are irrevelant); therefore, counting is not a good metric.

Time: Are we actually ‘busier these days’? Cites Hammill, 2009. Actually, more time now, less work, but professionals are an exception and work more. ‘The problem of polychronicity’ – Gershuny, 2000, 2007

Shannon – devised a mathematical formula for the flow of information

Weiner’s ‘Cybernetics‘ (1948) argues that the trouble with the 1940s was too much information. Relates to embodied cognition – Pentland, 2008.

Communication suffers from being ‘in thrall’ of quantification. De Sola Pool (1983) – people can process 240 words per minute. Neuman (2007) counted words coming into the home – and concluded that we are overloaded.

The myth of the paperless office – rate of reading on paper vs. screen is irrelevant as people do not read just to finish quickly, so counting misses the point.

What is a letter as a kind of cultural practice? Developed in many ways in 19th century America. It deepens relationships; ‘transcendental’ (Henkin). Capacity of humans to create bonds beyond time and space.

Example of the ‘glancephone’ to deal with information overload. Found that glancing came in clusters, and people mainly glance in order to get people to glance back. Glancephone in fact made a new social practice.

So we have a ‘texture’ of human relations – different type for different interactions. E.g. texting, intimate whispers, but permanent; voice calls are ‘tantalisingly ad hoc’.

Further information

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