The big issues? War, hunger, and oppression, of course. After that, questions of human communication seem pretty important to me. Especially since the landscape we stand on is shifting. [Update: The comments on this piece are fantastic. My profound thanks to the contributors.]
Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, more or less. Evidence suggests that human language has to be at least 50,000 years old, and there are reasonable arguments (cf. Chomsky) that it goes back about as far as we do.
For most of those years, the only way for people to use language was to be in each others’ presence. But as time has unfolded we’ve been fixing that problem. Not, however at an even pace:
Sorting Them Out · As of today, if I want to deliver a message to other humans, I have a whole lot of ways to go about it. Most of them have the same cost: zero, more or less. The exception is face-to-face, which can be very expensive; consider the horrifying number of Sun’s travel dollars that I burn every year.
I observe this, and questions occur to me. Have we invented all the communication modes we’re going to need, or will there be more? What needs are going un-addressed? And at the meta level: Does all this have a general higher-order structure that might help us think about these things?
We observe empirically that humans have little trouble deciding whether any particular message is best suited to a phone call, an email, or a Twitter post. What might be going into those decisions?
Immediacy · You might also say “latency”; how long does it take from a message to filter via language from your mind to mine? Face-to-face speech has excellent immediacy, as does a telephone conversation. The immediacy of texting is somewhat less, and a blog post doesn’t arrive until the reader gets around to looking.
Lifespan · How long does a message last? Modulo the fact that in 2007 everything is being recorded, by default a spoken word lasts only while the air’s still vibrating, and then becomes subject to the vagaries of human wetware. At the other end of the spectrum, a blog post potentially persists as long as the Internet’s memory, which is an unknown quantity but almost certainly longer than the human lifespan.
Audience · How large an audience can a message reach? Face-to-face is limited by the number of people you can pack into a room; realistically, more than a couple of hundred and it becomes more like broadcasting. A telephone conversation usually includes only two people, while blogs and broadcasting can potentially reach, well, everybody.
Sorting Them Out · So, I decided to try and illustrate how these things sort out. I assigned arbitrary Immediacy, Lifespan, and Audience scores in the range 0-40 to a bunch of communication modes.
Then I tried graphing it.
I’m going to keep fooling with this. You see, if you draw the right graph, maybe you’ll see the gaping hole in it, the Next Big Thing.
Who wouldn’t want to expand the human communication spectrum?
Why aren’t more people thinking about this stuff?