On Communication

[Michael Wildsmith/Getty Images]

We live in a "communication age" in which people on opposite sides of the world are able to connect with one another with unprecedented speed and ease. People are able to reach out, encounter and maintain contact with others within their own communities and around the globe through new media technology, and enormous quantities of knowledge and information are now more widely available than ever before.

But what about the quality of communication as opposed to its speed or quantity? New media can also be manipulated to spread lies, bullying or abuse and to incite hatred or violence. And there are vast inequalities in access; many parts of the planet are beyond the reaches of new media. The UN estimates some 1.5 billion people still do not have access to electricity, let alone up-to-date communications technology. This inequality renders great numbers of people effectively "voiceless," unrepresented or ignored in a burgeoning global conversation. As the intensity of communication increases, we need to also ensure that the many voices of our world can be equally heard.

To communicate means to "share" or "impart." The human capacity to communicate is one of our distinguishing features. On a practical level, it is what has enabled us to survive and become the dominant species on the planet. On a spiritual level, as the related term "to commune" suggests, it also implies opening ourselves to others, allowing the perspectives, values and concerns of others to enter deeply into our consciousness. This aspect of communication cannot be replicated by technology.

Communication is a human, as opposed to a technological affair; it involves an exchange, which requires greater effort than the one-way broadcasting of information. This kind of human-to-human exchange is what the contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas terms "communicative rationality," seeing it as a key to building and expanding democracy.

We first learn to communicate with the people in our immediate environment. As the philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) pointed out, those who have not had the kinds of experience that deepen understanding of neighborhood and neighbors will be unable to maintain regard for people from distant lands. Engaging with others, addressing them with kindness and concern "through words"--dia-logos--is the opposite of violence and is at the heart of building peace.

This issue of the SGI Quarterly brings together scholars, journalists and innovators in the art of communication to share their ideas and experiences about communicating a better future for all.