Computers Listen and Shout

Two capabilities of networked computers that can be anthropomorphized are listening and shouting. When humans listen they attend to the sounds in the air and attempt to differentiate meaningful sounds from noise. When humans speak or shout, they can communicate with those who are listening. This system requires only the anatomy and physiology of the human body and speech develops in most humans with no special training. Speech and hearing are ephemeral and local, however. If speech is unheard, then it is lost, and it functions only over relatively short distances.  

Humans can extend the distance and time over which speech and listening can be effective, but the processes are called writing and reading. Messages written on paper are much more permanent than spoken words and they can be easily transported. Print extends the audience of written speech as many identical copies can be made and distributed. Writers are communicating with readers who are situated in the future, so reading and writing can be interpreted as communication through time. With writing and print, the speed of communication is limited by the greatest speed at which the physical objects can be transported. 

The earliest forms of electronic communication effectively annihilated time and distance as relevant factors in human communication. Telegraphs carried messages across continents (and then oceans) with unimaginable speed, with the only significant delay arising from the humans who encoded and decoded the messages in a series of taps. The term “global village” has been applied to capture the observation that with electronic communication (from the first telegraphs to 21st century satellite-mediated telecommunications) everyone on the planet can be within earshot of everyone else. 

The listening and shouting capabilities of 21st century technology can be understood by considering the two billion smartphones carried by humans. With mine, I can send messages as text, image, audio, or video to individuals who I select or to one of several servers on the World Wide Web, thus share the message with anyone in the world (who has the capacity to find and read it). I have watched sporting events with friends across the continent as we sent messages back and forth as we watched the same broadcast. I have updated my boss on system upgrades using video chat between my office in New England and his hotel room in Finland. I have sat in a conference room in Texas and been part of a group conversation with individuals in New York and California. These illustrate the capacity of computers to shout across the globe that has become commonplace in the 21st century. 

My phone is equally adept at listening for messages. There are uncountable email, text, social media, and other messages traversing the Internet at any moment. On a typical day, several hundred of those are intended for me. I have configured my devices to listen for those and to notify me when they arrive (sometimes in a subtle manner, sometimes in a blatant manner). My phone even pays attention to the sender of the message and can vary the notification depending on the identity of the sender an the nature of the message. Electronic devices listen with much more precision and with much greater patience and energy than any human. My phone listens for messages delivered when I am asleep or otherwise occupied, and it listens to many channels at once.

The capacity for global shouting and listening provided by information technology can be leveraged for many purposes in education. Educators and students can share details of classroom events, they can learn about events just as they occur, and they can extend the classroom community to mentors, experts, and peers beyond the limits of the campus.