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12.3: Digital Communications

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    At least as old as the idea of commerce is the idea of communicating with other humans across geographical divides. A primary means for doing so is through the written word. The most direct of these means is the letter, because it is sent from one individual to another individual carrying a specific message. As such, letters represent a key connection between humans. In the digital age, email and instant messaging have usurped letters as the primary means of written communication, with hundreds of billions of digital messages sent from one person to another each day. The process of mailing a letter resembles the protracted commercial chain described in the section above. There is a sender who authors the letter and drops it in a post box. A postal worker then collects the letter and brings it to a sorting centre where a machine (though previously a human) directs the letter towards the right address. The letter is then transported by land, sea and/or air to a distribution centre where more sorting happens. Finally, a delivery person deposits it at the stipulated address, where the receiver accepts and reads the letter. Through a convoluted series of middlemen, the sender and receiver can thereby communicate with each other. With email and instant messaging, the human middlemen are completely removed from the process. The only step between sender and receiver is some technological wrangling that ensures the email or message arrives intact at the correct destination. In this way, sender and receiver can communicate directly and, importantly, with near instantaneousness. A written letter can take anything from a day to a week, or more, to arrive at its destination. By comparison, an email usually takes a matter of seconds, regardless of how much of the planet it has to traverse. Even emails to the International Space Station take only a few seconds to transmit.

    You may take the speed at which you can message others for granted. But it is worth putting this in perspective with a historical comparison. According to legend, when Martin Luther set in motion the Protestant Reformation in 1517, he did so by nailing a polemical document to a church door in Wittenberg. This act began a process of violent upheaval that culminated in 1648 with the end of the cataclysmic Thirty Years’ War. The full effects of Luther’s public posting thus took some 130 years to come to fruition. The modern equivalent of his document would be a social media post. Given that digital communications travel with almost no delay, messages can be quickly delivered to millions of people to spread ideas and organise movements. Perhaps the best example of this is the Arab Spring, also called the Twitter Revolution due to the widespread use of social media to propagate ideas and organise a response. While the Thirty Years’ War took over a hundred years to materialise and play out, the revolution in Tunisia took just a few weeks. It is clear that digital communications have played some role in speeding up such events.

    12.3: Digital Communications is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephen McGlinchey, Rosie WAters & Christian Scheinpflug.

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