I went to school in the stone age so imagine how pleased I was to hear that people still major in Communication. Last week I got a chance to talk with some of those folks in my friend Lucia’s class at Florida State University and it was both astonishing and comforting. Astonishing because of all the leaps in technology and the social change fomented by it, in no field has it been quite as pronounced and radical as in communication.
As a kid, I was fascinated by anything that touched “voice-at-a-distance”. Now, to put a frame on this, I AM old enough that when we were little, my grandparents practically used to have us wear dress clothes and promise to be completely quiet when there was going to be that momentous (and expensive) event called “a long-distance call”. It was amazing. The first three minutes of any such call (usually to an exotic place like Truth or Consequences or Wichita Falls) were spent marveling back and forth at the technology (“I can hear you like you are in the next room!”). But the phone was quotidian. I wanted the real stuff! My friend’s dad once built a set of walkie talkies but I’m sure these babies violated every FCC regulation in the book. We lived in Colorado on the edge of the Great Plains and they had a range of many miles and HUGE antennae that stuck up in the air about 4 feet. Those radios were a blast. I also had a “spy” tape recorder. It used 3″ reels (this was pre-cassette tape, if you’re under 30, you can check Wikipedia) and looked like a book. You simply hid it in plain sight on a bookshelf and-voila! You were 007. I used to sit up all night listening to HAM radio broadcasts, trying to decipher Morse Code and wishing I too had the coveted 3rd Class Radiotelephone Operators License that would allow me to talk to people across the world and have my own call sign. I never lost that fascination with how the WORD gets out and it progressed through theater, radio, television and film making. I still love it. This is the “narrative imperative” that drives us to be storytellers.
This next couple of classes graduating with COM degrees has better and more toys, lives in the first, completely networked world and goes forth to ply the story trade with great options and challenges. Options because the form-factors and potential for creative and informative storytelling are endless and fluid. You can make it up as you go along and be pretty darned right. Challenging because a lot of traditional channels-like “The Newspaper”- where people learned the trade, got connected and began to develop a sense of responsibility about what a storyteller does in a culture are going or gone. That’s all the astonishing part. Where’s the comfort then? That there is still a fascination with how we do what has traditionally defined us as a species-that’s comforting. We used to say it “set us apart”, that Homo Sapiens was the only animal that told stories or was conscious of itself. Science knows that to be untrue now. In fact recently, a group of scientists declared themselves formally in the The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. It turns out that we have a lot of company-sentient company-and that may be the most comforting thing of all. This new generation of storytellers and communicators may be the first one that opens the door to all of the consciousness that this baffling planet holds. It’s a great time to be a COM major.