Emotions, Languages And Now Facebook: The Evolution Of Human Communication

I want to share an interview published in the Spanish newspaper LNE on April 2012 when I was invited to talk about Social Media in Contigo Noreña (Asturias, Spain):
LNE (Interviewer): Some authors see in social networks a thriving collaborative intelligence. Others lament that despite the increase of data, it seems difficult to draw knowledge and wisdom from digital media. What is your opinion?

Indeed, we now have too much data and we need the ability to analyze it. Professor Thomas Malone at MIT speaks about collaborative intelligence and argues that a group of people with little knowledge working together have more value than a small group of experts. And that is based on the connection between people. The value of this, in fact, is the same as other technologies, such as language or emotions.

LNE – Can you explain.

The first social network was the one founded by our ancestors and that helped differentiate us from other apes. When we lived in the woods, we had no other problems defending against predators, but there was an evolution when hominids moved to the African savannah and they had to work directly for survival. Professor of Sociology J. Turner at the University of California (UCR) says that there was a direct evolution of the brain that allowed us to communicate. It is the first tool. Emotions. Then came the spoken language and then writing. And then to communicate we added more technology such as printing, which multiplied the power of the written language by a thousand. The radio or television also contribute to that transmission of information, though with some limitation as they`re only one-way. We have now gone one step further and the problem is how to analyze all that information.

LNE – Yes, how?

With the interconnections. Ten years ago, looking for something on the Web was crazy, because we did not know which pages we could rely on. However, today we read what is recommended by our network. I do not read five newspapers from first to last page, but the news that appears on my news feed wall recommended by my contacts because they are people I trust. In the end, social networks are networks of reference like those among researchers that filter all the literature on a subject allowing them to read only the most relevant news. A social network, professional or personal, allows us to filter all that information and keep what we want.

LNE – It is curious that in the end, everything becomes somehow smaller, the ‘global village’ of McLuhan.

We go from global to local and local to global. I was born in a small town of Huelva, where you can go out and everyone knows about your life. Facebook can be a bar or street corner, Twitter- a newspaper and LinkedIn- a conference in which you exchange business cards. It is a café chat without coffee. Or a conference without moving or staying in hotels. It is very interesting as currently I live in California, and through my Facebook I know not only what happens on the streets of my town, but the comments of my sister on the screen, I see the conversations of my neighbors, my MIT professor, people with whom I collaborate and do business or the news in my favorite newspaper. While I’m in line at the bank, I get to read my wall on my phone and get an overall number of signals, either by proximity, by affinity or by frequency, all together on one screen. And to be global you also become local, for example, when you get detailed information about children of your classroom teacher or when you see family photos in the office cubicle. This allows you to socialize, humanize the relationship. The same happens with Facebook. By showing a little of your personal life, you show confidence and influence. That will surely help two individuals do better business.

LNE – These new technologies involve new visions and paradigms. For example, with digital, linear discourse disappears in favor of hyper-fragmentation. How do you get used to that?

It is an evolution in the way we consume information. It happens that some people are more and some less prepared. In our time the information was sequential: first you study history, then mathematics, later play and then do your homework. Today, if you observe fifteen year old kids, you’ll see that they are able to do everything at once. They can talk with their parents during dinner while on the phone with their friends. However this is still a controversial discussion many researchers are investigating.

LNE – ‘They’re multitasking.

Yes, and most probably in the future we will talk about a new brain evolution. As I have said before, about new brain connections and rewiring in primate evolution, it happened. The interconnections in the brain are transformed to accommodate the social aspect between different nodes. Now we are experiencing a new development where there are kids who are possibly born with the ability to multitask while older generations who were educated differently consider it to be a multi-distraction. Kids can do five things at once and it’s fabulous. It deals also with holistic thinking which lets you troubleshoot the problem without attacking the whole as a whole. That also happens to both companies and people. Someone’s foot hurts, they try to treat it, that does not work and then they spend a lot of money for consulting and find out the problem was not in the foot. Multitasking helps us with all that. It can be very beneficial now that complexity increases. Often we do not know how to solve such complexity so we simplify it.

LNE – People have been saying for a very long time that the next development may be the leap into cyborgs, implants, but not many certainties seem to be there.

We should not talk about implants. When you talk about implants then you’re giving an early solution to a future communication problem. This will cause rejection from the population.  It makes more sense to figure out what the underlying problem is that we should try to solve and then use a solution less disruptive in order to have faster adoption.

LNE – Well, maybe a smartphone as an extension of our body.

Absolutely, and it is not an implant. An extension of our body may also be in buildings: cameras or sensors. At the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory, for example, there is a great project on honest signals. Honest signals are the body language when you negotiate with another, two people discuss a problem or a kid is about to ask a girl out, there are plenty of honest signals that our brain cannot grasp. These are things we do unconsciously, it is the body language that developed first. Well, there are sensors and tools to measure honest signals with incredible precision and make predictions about people based on honest signals. At MIT there are cameras in the hallways and there is a “sociometer” that measures how happy the people on campus are and in which campus areas it is more frequent. Can you imagine that a company could calculate the motivation of its employees? Imagine those meters and the ability to evaluate a person in the way only a mother knows the mood of her child by looking. Imagine the number of decisions we could make with that information. I know there is a problem of privacy, but I think that it could also evolve in the near future.

LNE – When technology exceeds the analytical capabilities of our senses, does it not create another reality?

There are things that were previously impossible. For example having a holistic view of our networks and being able to quantify it. Now you know who the most influential person in your network is, the one that has more contacts. We did not have that traceability before, and it is interesting, because we have to scan this information and measure it, and if you can`t measure, you can`t manage.

LNE – Is it ethical to say the more followers you have the better you are?

The same superficiality existed offline as well. Now technology allows us to see social networks clearly and analyze what was happening before and during social interactions. Spoken language is also a technology compared with online social tools. What I mean is that, interdependently of the technology they use, people who are able to influence others will have more followers.

LNE – Will there be changes as the digital natives are incorporated into leadership positions?

In the times of an economic transition, an entrepreneur can´t pledge to remove a screw with a hammer. I know it’s hard to give up the old tools, but this change will lead those who are capable of learning and group learning. The most innovative ones will have an opportunity in the next ten years and the others will have to learn. And it’s ok, because it is the way we have evolved through a lifetime.

LNE – What happens to politicians with social networks? Why comment on so many mistakes?

They know networking best and how best to measure it. A famous well known measure is popularity: the number of covers, interviews … We did not have that possibility earlier. What happens to political leaders is that they know the traditional methodology, but find it hard to translate that to the digital world. The problem is trying to translate the bottom instead of translating the methodology. The concept is the same. What changes is the way. The ones who have influence on radio and TV are likely to be brought into the digital world around the package, and they often translate it without the concept and try to maintain the traditional methodology. The social strategy of a government, company, political party or famous person can`t be performed the same way with a traditional strategy. There are other people who must have knowledge of digital media channels and be able to engage honest conversations there. An example of a communication crisis where traditional channels did not work is the case of Domino’s pizza chain.   So I recommend business leaders know the tools that their customers use to communicate with each other. Politicians think that Facebook and Twitter are privacy issue games and refuse to use them, but they are missing a huge opportunity.

[Interview published in Spanish newspaper LNE in April 2012]




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