The ability, willingness and enthusiasm for communication is one of the most prominent features of human civilisation as we know it. We communicate news, facts, ideas, emotions, stories—it’s impossible to imagine life without communication. But communication is not static: it has evolved continuously over the millennia and will continue to do so.
To understand how communication will evolve, it’s not enough to consider the here and now, as our focus tends to be more immediate and micro, we risk missing the wood for the trees, as it were. But if we were to look at the history of how communication has evolved, we are likely to gain key insights into what lies ahead. As in many other cases, studying the past can help us better predict the future.
Beginning with caveman drawings, communication has broadly evolved through verbal communication, the written script, the printing press, painting, the camera, radio, television, the internet and now the AR/VR world that is already beckoning. Each successive improvement tends to have a least one of two characteristics:
- Involvement of a new or additional sense (from audio to visual to audio-visual)
- A deeper or richer way of using the base medium (from drawings to the written word, still photography to video, etc.)
Going by this evidence of how things have evolved over millennia, it seems safe to suggest that the next stage of evolution of communication will follow a similar path. But to look at what form it will take, we need to take a closer look to what has been common to past evolutions, and what has been more different.
Four broad similarities stand out when we examine what past evolutions in communication have achieved or aimed at: accuracy, scalability, speed and involvement. Thanks to the internet, accuracy, scalability and speed are at least potentially equal. Anyone can reach or create accurate information, unlike in times when either information or access was limited. Scalability was a problem from the time of hand-written scrolls through the printing press and right through to the C&S era, but not when anyone can access a search engine. And we’ve come a long way from the era of physical and hence slow distribution of communication to virtually instantaneous dissemination.
The key to the next evolution of communication is likely to be in making it a lot more involving, a lot more visceral. With each stage of evolution communication has become progressively more involving, from simple sketches to complex storytelling to our baby steps into immersive experiences. VR/AR seems to be at the cutting edge of technology, already involving sight, hearing and touch—smell and taste are likely not too far off. But making communication more visceral isn’t just about technology. It’s also about reimagining the medium and exploring possibilities: consider how graphic novels are incredibly gripping, or how filters on Instagram increase involvement.
At the ‘storytelling’ end, industries like gaming are also pushing boundaries, with players being able to increasingly build their own worlds and craft their own adventures. Right now, it’s on our laptop or smartphone screens, but how far can it be pushed? The acclaimed TV show Westworld suggests one potential way to go.
To conclude, the next evolution of communication is likely to value involvement more than any other factor. This will involve a combination of technology and storytelling and will take two broad forms—by involving more human senses along with a richer use of the base medium.
Exciting times ahead!
Gulshan Singh is national planning director at FCB Interface in Mumbai