I have been writing a lot lately about new media tools — in particular Facebook (e.g., here, here, and here), Twitter (e.g., here and here), and LinkedIn (e.g., here).  This is not because I undervalue other aspects of life’s best practices, but instead because these technologies are both new and increasingly ubiquitous. Exploring life’s best practices requires looking at the way modern technology impacts our world.

Despite my recent concentration on new communications technologies, however, I want to keep focused on the the deeper challenge. Namely, we have brains that were hard-wired over eons when these new technologies did not exist.

For much of our ancestors’ existence, we did not even have language: “Nonverbal communication was the only language used throughout most of humanity’s existence. For many, many centuries it was absolutely no oral or written language. Therefore, body language was the sole means of communication.” Bolton, Robert, People Skills (1979), at 78.

Think about that for a moment. Language is a relatively new phenomenon.  For eons, we communicated by signs, grunts, and posture.  (Of course, we still do: although no one has developed a definitive lexecon of the body, communications experts readily acknowledge that body language is powerfully (if ambiguously) expressive.)

Our brains adapted to use language, but much of our brain power is prelinquistic.  Our brains were built primarily for use on the savanna, looking for things that we could eat — or that could eat us. (See chapter one of John Medina’s recent book, Brain Rules.)

Thus, our brains are powerful, but primitive.

Now the brain must deal with unprecedented information inundation. No doubt, we have faced decisive information transformations before.  The development of language some 50,000 years or more ago was one break point.  The development of writing, 4000 or so years ago, was another.  The domestication of the horse, which permitted humans to readily exchange ideas over land, dramatically expanded the availability of information.  The printing press democratized writing. The telephone and modern modes of transportation have likewise greatly expanded the availability and exchange of information.

Is the new information revolution something different?  I’m inclined to believe so, at least as to scale, though my reasons will have to wait for another post.  Regardless, the tool we will use to address this new data wave is very similar to the one our ancestors used to watch out for saber-toothed tigers.  Thus, it is important to learn as much as possible about this old tool, including its identifiable quirks and ways to make it function more effectively.

To the extent this newest information wave might swamp us, I also believe it is in our interests to learn what the best minds are saying about how to best use this quirky, powerful, three-pound lump for interpersonal communication.  Perhaps mastery of the basics may provide skills for dealing with the unprecedented and unknown.  I’m poring over the literature, and I will report back.