06/26/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Texting Without Context

My professional life was dedicated to helping the military adapt to rapidly evolving communications technology, and my primary concern has long been with the sheer volume of information we acquire without knowing quite what to do with it. The National Security Agency is drowning in more data than it can handle. Too much information is worse than useless; it beguiles us with a false sense of security. The invasion of Iraq by Islamic extremists, which was a major military invasion, apparently took us by surprise. Somewhere in those vast NSA data banks were surely abundant clues signaling what was coming, but they got lost in the shuffle. We were caught flat-footed.

On a more personal level, I believe the digital revolution is subverting direct human relations in subtle ways that compromise our ability to communicate with each other. Not so long ago we spoke on the telephone, conversed during walks in the park or coffee in the kitchen, or even wrote letters to each other via snail mail. It may have been inefficient in modern terms, but it enabled us to share our innermost aspirations and fears, and to develop lasting relationships that helped us cope with the disappointments and vicissitudes of life.

Alexandra Petri, who writes the ComPost blog at the Washington Post, boasts of hundreds of voice mail messages on her cellphone that she has never listened to, and probably will never listen to. "Phones are devices you use to avoid talking to people," she said, contending that text messages are much more efficient. "Nobody makes land-line calls anymore," she said.

Well, some of us do, but admittedly we are dinosaurs. The younger set relies almost exclusively on texting. I see them on the Metro, on the sidewalk, in restaurants and at social events busily texting away oblivious to the life going on around them. Aside from the sheer rudeness of such conduct is the matter of the text message medium itself. Real communication is much more than words. It involves facial expressions, body language and voice tones. You can text all day long without conveying what is really on your mind, and many people do. Indeed, over my many years I have learned that people rarely say exactly what they really mean. You have to listen closely for the nuance, and there is no nuance in a text. I would suggest that Petri has it exactly backwards; texting is what we do to avoid communicating with other people.

During his shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger complained to us about the lack of efficient voice recognition technology that would enable him to be certain who he was talking to. We did him one better -- voice recognition technology along with a visual screen that enabled him to see the other person face-to-face. That not only put his mind at ease about the security of his call, but also enabled him to interact with the other parties on a personal level beyond mere words.

Text messages are just one phase of the digital flood that engulfs people the way NSA's computers engulf the security establishment. There isn't time enough to sift among the mounds of texts, emails, Facebook entries, blogs and other digital noise to find the information we really need. Newspapers and magazines serve a purpose by culling the useful information from the avalanche of noise, but they too are going the way of the dodo bird. This is a most unfortunate trend. Personal conversations -- either direct or over the phone -- are the most effective way to obtain important information and connect with other people. We are losing something vital.


Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.