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Community in an electronic age

  • 09 July 2006

Two SMS messages—one sad, the other joyful—captured for me the power and problems of communication in an electronic age. I received the first message a few years ago on a misty winter’s morning on the shore of Lake Geneva. ‘Gran has passed away peacefully. Lots of love, Mum and Dad.’ The other was on my phone when I awoke in London in February this year. It was from my wife: ‘I’m pregnant!’

I was very glad to receive both messages; it is not the sort of news you want to wait for. I was glad to receive the word, but it was only half or less of the communication; there was no-one to offer the comforting touch, and no belly to kiss. In some ways there is nothing new about this experience. Letters from the fronts of wars told an earlier generation of the passing of their sons. What is new is how much of our communication is done at a distance and how rapidly we have embraced it.

The shift to communicating electronically is not simply about increased frequency, it’s about the mobility and variety of forms it can take—voice, fax, email, voicemail, SMS, mms and video. And the revolution is far from over. In its next phase, as voice recognition software improves, these different forms will merge. You can expect to have your email read out to you by your mobile phone and to record a message over the phone that will arrive as faxed text to a colleague.

Driving the communications revolution has been the plummeting cost of connecting. For example, a three-minute trans-atlantic call cost $US250 in 1930. By 1960 it had fallen to $50. Between 1970 and 1980 it went from the mid $40 range down to the $1 range and by the 1990s the cost could be expressed in cents.

There is no doubt that there has been enormous gain from this revolution. We are more connected that ever before. For Australians, cheap phone calls and flights have conquered the tyranny of distance.

In commercial terms the revolution is even more extraordinary. Cheaper, more sophisticated communications have changed the structure of organisations and markets by lowering the costs of co-ordinating commercial activity both nationally and internationally.

Organisations have become more focused as cheaper communications have made outsourcing more economic, and more global, as cheaper  communications, transport and information technology and falling tariffs have reduced the cost of distance.