Reflecting on Synchronous & Asynchronous Communications

Of course, until relatively modern times nearly all communication tools, apart from the primacy of face-to-face interactions were all asynchronous. Really until Alexander Graham Bell devised how to transport the human voice along a wire all attempts at synchronous tool development left a whole lot to be desired. Sure there was mores code but only a select few might ever have got the opportunity to communicate with another, in real time, without standing in their presence. In this way it is not surprising that the greatest development of communication tools with the mainstream adoption of the Internet would have been asynchronous.

In truth, email was the original killer app, that thing that made the Internet suddenly worth using. Prior to that, it surely seemed as little more than a replacement for physical books. Yet, with electronic mail a note could be sent, received, and prompt a response in what seemed very near synchrony. At first,  I even remember not quite being convinced about email, feeling why not just pick up the phone. It took me a bit of time to fully recognize email’s compression of time in correspondence as a powerful extended tool of writing.

Now, having taught an online course for the last few years, I am quite familiar with the asynchronous tool of the online threaded discussion. In most learning management systems, essentially all communication used is asynchronous. However, the most recent develop is to add a live chat component, a la instant messaging, the next internet evolutionary step from email.

Asynchronous communication has long provided a distinct benefit in academics, namely the affordance of time: time to think, time to respond, time to compose. That kind of time is not readily available in live, real-time events. Plus, in the example of the threaded discussion, there are deeper and greater benefits to many-to-many communications that are not only preserved but usually encouraged.

Still, nothing humanizes communication across distant spaces than real-time exchanges that mirror those that are face-to-face. While it didn’t take very long before the human voice got diced into bits small enough to reclaim their dominance  over the same wires that they once traveled almost exclusively. It took considerably longer to perfect that nearly face-to-face communication that Apple has made possible to be pocketed. I suppose if you can’t feel the touch of another human being the ability to see their three and a half inch face and feel the vibrations of their voice in the palm of the hand.

While I am anxiously awaiting the moment when AT&T relinquishes its exclusive grip on the iPhone, I routinely now use Skype to maintain a link between my children and their extended family, most notably their grandparents, residing a thousand miles from our home. Doing so definitely helps maintain and deepen a relationship between pre-literate grandchildren and their grandparents that otherwise would be limited to times of travel. Cards and gifts are great but the email, instant messaging, or even a phone call do not have quite the same allure for a three year-old or one year-old for that matter.


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