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Sunday, 10 March 2013

The communication paradox

I vividly remember the summer holidays in Kolkata after my 7th grade. Amidst the searing heat and tee-shirt clenching humidity, I discovered the letter. What started out as a playful prank with my cousin (also a wiry 12 year old) who lived in Chennai, soon turned into a continuing series of correspondence spanning an array of interests and aversions, ranging from Pokemon and Batman to Brinjals and the Australian Cricket Team.

Members of both families found our obsession with letter-writing rather odd. After all it was the year 2003 and the e-mail had started to become ubiquitous even amongst the Dial-up modem middle-class. My mother surmised to be to be a P.G.Wodehouse-inspired phase of mine, but avidly encouraged me to get better at it.

A few months back, while I was shifting a few things from Chennai, my home town, to Bangalore, my work town, I recovered one of those letters. Cliched, assiduously formal but with childish content and expressed in a bits-by-pieces scrawny handwriting, the letter brought back some old memories and rekindled old laughter. It was a good thing to discover. But running into old, warm things is nothing new, right? We all see that old diary in the back of the cupboard and end up poring over it that weekend, or we rediscover that buried tin box with all our childhood treasures in it and rack our brains all day trying to figure out what was so special about that one-armed G.I.Joe. No, my discovery was very much within the boundaries of coincidence and a childhood well-spent.

But I believe that finding that letter was more than just that. It almost felt like the Universe was nudging me to understand the under-currents below my feet and acknowledge them. You see, I am a communications engineer. I work on a mobile system-on-chip. For the better part of my education, I have studied about communication and ways of making it more effective. And haven't we?
From the once-revolutionary Telegraph to the today's 'sexting' convenient Snapchat, we have come a long way in making communication more effective, efficient, cheap and most-importantly easier.
But is communication, just the transfer of ideas or thoughts from one person to another? Is it just that mechanical experience we all have to endure to convey information to others? After reading that letter, I refuse to accept that premise.

Because that letter was not about the content. What it spoke to me was not written on it. The subtle implication that another person took the trouble of sitting down with a pen and paper, jotted down their thoughts, phrased them eloquently (*citation needed* ), stuck a stamp onto, walked down to the post box and dropped it, all for the express purpose of my having a peek into his opinions on Pokemon evolution. That was never written on that letter, but that was the message which struck home. That letter had character. It had meaning and more importantly, a human face behind it.

I wish I could say otherwise but today we do not have that. The under-currents that flow beneath every letter and which sometimes need 10-20 reads to identify have been made irrelevant today. Earlier, words used to be the mode for describing a beautiful vista outside one's hotel room when traveling. Today it is about Instagram this and tweet that. That picture was never taken for one special person to admire along with us, it was taken to boost one's self worth on a virtual reality.

I am all for the communication revolution. After all, it pays my bills! I agree that in this fast paced world, awaiting a week for a reply is not feasible. But surely there could be a middle ground? That does not just mean forcing kids to do it to appease the guilt of their parents. Surely, we could find more things to say without just punching into a slab of metal and glass?