Communication Is Not a Commodity

When communication is stripped of its heart and soul, should we be surprised by the loneliness the follows?

Friedrich Kallmorgen, “Summer Afternoon,” 1893
Friedrich Kallmorgen, “Summer Afternoon,” 1893 (photo: Public Domain)

We are in the midst of a communication revolution, and undoubtedly every day brings new revelations and ideas about how we can further expedite, expand and enable interaction on levels unfathomable just a few years before. We as a people are so inundated with communication that even the most outgoing and gregarious of us all would readily admit that the chatter has become smothering. 

Yet increasingly lost in all the supposed connecting of information, ideas and opinions is that communication has increasingly turned into a commodity by which we are struggling to manage. To be fair, while social media and AI among other virtual mediums have magnified this reality, even civilizations of antiquity struggled to harness a true understanding of what interaction is really about, and failed to recognize the real costs that come with ineffective, extraneous communication on many levels.

Today, though, fueled by innovation, we are in real danger of losing the spirit of communication altogether, and I will point to three primary ways in which this aberration is not only causing communication to become less effective, but also less joyful, which in the long run leads to an increasing desire to detach on an individual and societal level. Said another way, when communication becomes increasingly devoid of resonant pleasure, at the simple level of sharing authentically, it becomes one more annoyance we are motivated to avoid.

The first commodification of communication is when it is seen only as a means to an end, not a means worth pursuing and honoring in and of itself. This happens repeatedly in social media, when information in various forms is posted for the sole purpose of reinforcing a particular opinion, image or agenda. But it isn’t just online that this occurs, as very often in our conversations, we believe that communication is occurring only to realize (or not) that expressing isn’t synonymous with sharing. When communication is only a means to a specific purpose, and the modality by which this occurs is relegated to a commodity that is simply altered for a desired finality, then communication itself becomes diluted in a way that no longer retains the essence of which it is designed.

Secondly, communication becomes a commodity when convenience and comfort are prioritized over connection; by connection, I mean a true sense of mutuality with an individual or group of people. Never has it been easier in the history of the world to send a message; never has been easier or more sanctioned to disregard or ignore one altogether. In both situations, we are repeatedly guilty of considering what is most comfortable or convenient, not necessarily what is collaborative or considerate. Whether it is an email ignored, a text sent in place of a conversation, or a larger post intended for a smaller group of people, when we prioritize convenience and comfort over connection and collaboration, we are sending a clear message to others and the world that everyone else matters less than I do. 

Finally, we find increasingly that communication, ironically during this purported innovative revolution, has become replaceable. Years ago, my grandparents and their friends had a Memorial Day tradition for decades at a nearby state park in which they would come together to celebrate each other and the gifts of the season. Having attended on multiple occasions, and having heard about some of the inclement weather that they endured, I recognized that this tradition wasn’t the easiest thing to continue each year. But as this tradition no longer exists as they have passed on, I find that my generation and the ones to come, increasingly find reasons “to catch you later” for something that seems much easier and intrinsically more pleasant, or perceived less awkward at times. It’s not just that it’s more convenient, but rather it’s that we have been ironically socialized to believe that our interactions, our time together, are easily replaceable by that which poses as communication, or that which doesn’t even bother to at all. 

Whether in antiquity or in our modern world, when communication is treated as a commodity to be exchanged on the open market, we inherently lose one of the greatest gifts that exists. Science teaches us that in this communication revolution, we are lonelier than ever, and that one of the greatest buffers to many psychological and physical problems — social support — strangely seems more elusive than ever before. 

When communication is stripped of its heart and soul, should we expect anything else? In its purest form, communication is an invisible conduit that begins to form even before a child is born, as partly evidenced by the fact that a fetus at six months of gestation soothes differently to the sound of his or her mother than any other person. From the moment we begin to see the world not just through our eyes, but also that of another, we begin to recognize that this invisible force links to all humanity and beyond. Even young kids become increasingly in tune with the “flow” of communication and the “theory of mind” by which early social awareness and later relationships are formed. They come to know that another’s experience is not their own, even though our lives overlap in countless ways. They come to know that communication is not just contained in spoken language, but also the nuances by which the communicator delivers it. 

Yet dangerously, we are losing lessons that even a kindergartner senses so well. As our communication increasingly loses its sense of mutuality, and increasingly conveys a sense of entitlement and compartmentalization, the inherent opportunity granted to us in this timeless gift is diminishing just as human communication is giving way to an artificial form. Soon we might be asking an alternate form of the proverbial question, “If someone speaks in a crowded room and no one hears them, are they communicating at all?” If we are honest, the answer should frighten us, and maybe even leave us speechless as we discern a world drowning in noise. Because in the end, communication was never about the words or even the message, but about the authentic sharing — in the search for goodness, truth and beauty — that underlay it all.